By month’s end, Congress is expected to pass and President Obama is expected to sign the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, giving all states the latitude to broadly define student achievement and shape school improvement in ways that California already has been doing.
“NCLB was so discredited, and California has been in the lead in moving beyond it,” said David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). The bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, “adopts the approach that is similar to California’s emphasis on multiple measures (of gauging school progress) and reducing the punitive elements of accountability,” he said.
In paring back the powers of the next U.S. secretary of education and reversing course on controversial reforms, the bill would end conflicts that Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have had with NCLB and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s expansive interpretation of it. It would prohibit requiring states to use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers – a big area of friction.
The House easily passed the bill Wednesday and the Senate could take it up next week. If it becomes law, it will permit each state to set its own goals for districts and schools, and to determine how to measure progress in meeting them and identify and fix the worst-performing schools. Gone will be the often-criticized nationwide target of 100 percent student proficiency, uniform penalties for falling short of targets and federal dictates on how to turn failing schools around.
Gone, too, at the end of the school year, will be the waivers with some flexibility from NCLB that Duncan granted to 42 states and Washington, D.C., in recent years to revise their accountability systems. California didn’t pursue a waiver because state officials disagreed with the preconditions that Duncan set. But California headed off in its own direction of school reform anyway with the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula, which shifted more money to low-income students and English language learners and more authority to districts to make decisions. Next year, the State Board of Education and the Legislature will flesh out a new school accountability and student testing system that the state funding law outlined. The Every Student Succeeds Act will formally grant all states the flexibility to do so.
“Like every state, we want a federal policy that allows for the flexibility and alignment to meet our local student needs and current state policies,” Michael Kirst, president of the state board, said in a statement. “No Child Left Behind did not do this. We believe many of the provisions now being considered complement our state’s policies.”
Some elements of NCLB’s mandates for accountability would continue, with some changes. States would have to:
- Test students yearly in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in math and English language arts and in grades 5, 8 and 10 in science.
- Track the data for racial, ethnic and other student subgroups and take action in those schools where subgroups are struggling.
- Intervene in the worst-performing 5 percent of schools and in high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent.
- Compile not only scores on standardized tests, but also growth in scores over time, high school graduation rates and progress in reclassifying English learners to proficiency in English. Beyond these factors, which must be given substantial weight in an accountability system, states would have to incorporate non-academic factors, such as school climate, parent and teacher engagement or access to advanced coursework and other career and college readiness measures.
Those requirements are compatible with the direction California has taken. It has gone beyond NCLB’s one-dimensional focus on test scores to sanction schools. Tests scores are but one element of eight priorities – school climate and parent and student engagement among them – that the Legislature spelled out in the Local Control Funding Formula. The Local Control and Accountability Plans, which districts must complete annually, include two dozen performance metrics, including student suspension, attendance, and dropout and expulsion rates. The 2013 funding formula addresses achievement gaps in redistributing funding and in requiring that county offices work with – and eventually intervene in – districts where student subgroups continue to lag behind.
Potential source of conflict
Where California could have a run-in with federal officials is in determining the 5 percent of schools that are lowest-performing and need a plan for corrective action. Compiling that list could require a way to rank schools – something like the Academic Performance Index, the three-digit number calculated from weighted factors like graduation rates and test scores. The state board suspended the API two years ago and Kirst and other board members have made it clear they don’t want to re-establish it. They favor a collection of performance data, not a single ranking. Theirs would be a data dashboard with a mix of school or district metrics, some highlighting performance and others pointing to underlying conditions, such as suspension rates, that could signal trouble.
“That’s the rub; they don’t want to do another API,” Plank said.
The state board’s challenge will be to marry the federal requirement for a state-produced list of schools with a more decentralized school improvement system that features a different approach to measuring performance.
“The language of the bill suggests multiple measures of school quality will need to be combined into a single summary measure to identify the lowest performing schools,” said Rob Manwaring, an authority on school finance and accountability who is working with the nonprofit advocacy organization Children Now. Also, “the Legislature may need to pass legislation aligning the Local Control Funding Formula with the new world of Every Student Succeeds Act.”
Until the state board chooses how to proceed and the federal government signs off on the state’s new system, California will be stuck with NCLB’s accountability requirements – so the board will feel pressure to move ahead.
The state board hasn’t made a final decision about abolishing the API, and the Legislature will have final say. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act will strengthen the arguments of the state PTA and children’s advocacy groups, which prefer a simple index comparing schools’ performance.
Civil rights groups, with some reluctance, are backing the Every Student Succeeds Act. John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization, expressed the ambivalence. “It’s not a good thing in general to give states this much authority; the bill marks a significant abdication of the federal role in education, relying on good-faith efforts of the states. But California is headed in the right direction with the still unanswered question of whether in the end it will get it right.”