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As Congress considers bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the most heated debate has been over how to hold schools accountable for student performance, and who should decide.
But while these subjects are dominating the debate, a less-heralded provision in the 50-year-old law that has provided federal education support could also have a significant effect on schooling.
It’s no surprise that the flash point in this year’s rewrite of ESEA should be on accountability. The previous version of the law, the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, for the first time set national rules for accountability. States were required to test every student in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school, in reading and mathematics each year. Schools that failed to show “adequate yearly progress” in test scores — for all students and for each subgroup of students — were subject to an escalating set of sanctions.
The bills Congress is now considering would roll back that system substantially. Both the bill passed by the House on Wednesday and the bill the Senate is considering would continue the requirement for testing in each grade, but they would leave to states the responsibility for determining how to hold schools accountable for the results. This approach matches the Republican desire to reduce the federal role in education.
But to Democrats and their allies in the civil rights community (including my organization, the Alliance for Excellent Education), the bills go too far. They are arguing for amendments to require states to intervene in schools with low graduation rates and those that fail to bring up the performance of subgroups. These amendments would ensure that low-performing students and schools receive the support they need.
The outcome of the debate will have a profound effect on schooling — after all, No Child Left Behind left a major imprint on education. And it will set the terms for the federal role in education for years to come.
But another provision in the Senate bill, one that has received almost no attention, could also have a significant effect on schools. That provision would create a pilot program to allow up to seven states to develop and implement innovative assessment systems. If it becomes law, this provision could open the door to dramatic new ways of measuring student learning. And because of the strong effect of assessment on instruction, this provision could have a substantial impact on teaching and learning.
Specifically, the provision would allow states to use “competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments, cumulative year-end assessments, or performance-based assessments” and combine them in ways to make yearly determinations of school performance. In that way, the pilot program would encourage states to use a broad set of measures of student performance, rather than just end-of-year tests.
That’s a big shift. It would allow states to measure a broader set of knowledge and skills — for example, the ability of students to conduct extended research projects and write essays that require revisions. Thus these assessments can tap abilities such as critical thinking, problem solving, and complex communication. And it would encourage schools to focus on these abilities in instruction, rather than focus just on what might be on an end-of-year test.
In some ways, this pilot program brings states back to the future. In the 1990s, a number of states experimented with innovative assessments, including performance tasks and portfolios. As a recent report from the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) shows, many of these assessments faced challenges of technical quality, cost and feasibility, and political support. By the time No Child Left Behind was enacted and states had to increase the number of tests they administered, just about all of the innovative 1990s assessments were dropped.
As the report notes, the field has advanced in the past two decades, and states are in a better position than they were in the 1990s to put in place sound and cost-efficient assessments. But the pilot program places some conditions on the innovations to ensure that they benefit all students. For example, states must demonstrate that the assessments helped produce improvements in student outcomes—including those for at-risk students.
The pilot program is a long way from becoming law. The Senate must approve its version of the bill, and then Senators and House members need to reconcile their two proposals. That might not be easy: the House version contains a change in the funding formula for Title I, the main federal program for economically disadvantaged students, that is anathema to Democrats. Any compromise by the House might jeopardize the support of conservative Republicans there. And if the two chambers can come to an agreement, President Obama must sign the bill. He has already signaled that he opposes the House bill, and he has stated that he would like the accountability provisions in the Senate version strengthened.
Nevertheless, this week is the closest Congress has come to rewriting the federal rules of education in more than thirteen years. The changes in the legislation could have a profound effect on every school in the country. Stay tuned.
Robert Rothman is a Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.