Blog: The Educated Reporter

As ESSA Era Begins, Assessing NCLB’s Legacy

Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King visits a classroom in Tampa, Fla. The federal Education Department's reach has been scaled back by the new Every Student Succeeds Act, as Congress sought to transfer more authority over local schools back to the states. (Flickr/U.S. Department of Education)

America brought home a middling report card with 74.4 out of 100 points – a “C” grade — in Education Week’s 20th annual “Quality Counts” report this week, which ranks the nation and individual states on a variety of student factors, from test scores to graduation rates to “chance of success” later in life. (That’s about the same grade earned last year, as well.)

Massachusetts, a consistently strong performer on other national rankings as well as international assessments, had the highest score: 86.8, or a B+ overall. At the other end of the academic spectrum, Nevada slipped to last place with a score of 65.2, equivalent to a “D” in Education Week’s grade book. (“It’s honestly disheartening,” Steve Canavero, Nevada’s interim state superintendent, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.)

As part of a comprehensive review of public education during the No Child Left Behind era — which came to a close last month when President Obama signed a rewrite of the federal K-12 law – Education Week also looked at 12 years worth of test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.” From 2003 to 2015, using combined or averaged scores for fourth and eighth grade reading and math, the nation saw a “modest degree of improvement” in academic achievement on NAEP. (There was an almost across-the-board dip in scores in 2015 from 2013. Policymakers say they hope that will be reversed next year.)

But the achievement gap between poor students and their wealthier peers widened during the same period, from 2003 to 2015. And while some students of color made strong gains during the NCLB years based on Education Week’s combined proficiency analysis  – Asian-American kids recorded the biggest surge in scores – African-American and Hispanic students still trail their white classmates by a sizable margin.

This analysis should not be used as an indictment of NCLB, said Holly Yettick, the director of the Education Week Research Center. (Indeed, NAEP’s administrators frequently caution that the results are not intended to measure the merits of a particular instructional approach or policy.) But the assessment does provide a valid means of evaluating a relative starting point for student achievement after NCLB took effect, Yettick said, and where it stands now.

Did NCLB work? 

While Education Week’s national and state-level data is certainly valuable — along with the publication’s close look at how states are thinking about student testing and school accountability — it was one of the side stories in this year’s Quality Counts that particularly caught my attention: A roundup of NCLB-era research evaluating the various programs and services mandated under the federal law, including provisions on school choice and tutoring.

NCLB required states to identify schools that failed to make adequate progress on test scores, and offer students transfers to more successful campuses – at the district’s expense (using a portion of its federal Title I aid). The Rand Corp and the American Institutes of Research determined that by 2007 only 1 percent (no, that’s not a typo) of eligible students had taken advantage of the transfers. There are plenty of reasons for this: In some cases, attending a more successful school meant sending an elementary student far from home. In other instances, families received scant details about the choice provisions, and the options were occasionally framed as a potential hardship (parents would have to travel greater distances for school events, kids’ social circles might be limited), rather than as an opportunity for a higher-quality educational experience.  

And then there’s NCLB’s tutoring provision, known officially as “supplemental educational services”. Districts were required to set aside a portion of their federal Title I funding (designated for schools with the largest percentage of low-income kids) to provide extra academic support to struggling students. According to RAND’s researchers, fewer than 4 out of every 10 eligible kids – 17 percent – received such tutoring.

Implementation was an ongoing challenge, particularly for rural school districts that didn’t attract qualified companies to provide in-person tutoring or other support services. (I wrote about the significant problems Nevada had with its tutoring program, which cost upward of $20 million in federal dollars, back in 2009.) And there’s little evidence of academic benefit to students under the law’s tutoring policy.

Would transferring kids out of low-achieving schools improve outcomes in the long run? Getting an answer to that requires that parents want their kids to change schools, the means of getting them there are available, and that there are successful campuses nearby with open seats.

Many districts were resistant to having their federal dollars redirected to these programs. And after the U.S. Department of Education began issuing waivers to the majority of states from many of the provisions of NCLB, the transfer and tutoring programs were largely dropped.

So what doe this mean? Two of the biggest potential change levers of NCLB were never fully utilized. Whatever lens we use to look back on the No Child Left Behind and judge its relative success or failure, it’s important to consider not just what the law attempted to prescribe but how that was actually carried out in local schools, districts and states.

Limiting the feds

Moving forward, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is now the law of the land for public schools. It gives states greater leeway in how they spend their federal funding and in how they approach school accountability. In exchange, states are also expected to develop accountability plans for ensuring that historically underserved populations of students continue making progress, and that they are ready for both college and career.

The ink is barely dry on ESSA – signed into law by President Obama in December – and there are still plenty of specifics to be hashed out by the Department of Education when it comes to the states’ obligations and the feds’ role in oversight. But there’s one element that’s been clearly articulated: the Education Department is prohibited from either forcing states to use any particular set of academic standards (legislative code language that encompasses the Common Core) or offering incentives to do so.

During an EWA webinar with reporters earlier this week to discuss “Quality Counts”, Education Week reporter Alyson Klein called ESSA the equivalent of “legal handcuffs” for the U.S. secretary of education when it comes to standards. (In fact, the law seeks to downsize the Education Department’s role more broadly.)

“If there was any doubt whether there is a federal requirement for Common Core, that has been wiped away,” Klein said.

Indeed, this could represent a silver lining of sorts forCommon Core’s advocates: It would be difficult to make it any clearer that this isn’t a federal mandate (something its critics have contended and supporters have long countered as factually untrue). Moving forward, politicians and voters who take issue with the standards will have to take their complaints to the states, not the feds. But it might be too late reverse the tainting of the brand, Klein said.

Even if states scale back their commitment to the national grade-level expectations, the change won’t be quick, pointed out Education Week’s Yettick. Per ESSA, they are still required to have “high-quality” standards in place, and those can take time to create and adopt. And those states that have already moved in that direction are drafting and adopting new standards that are largely similar to the pre-existing — and much maligned – Common Core.

“If the Common Core goes away,” Yettick said, “The Common Core hangover will be there for quite a while.”