If you want to see education policy in the next few years, look to state capitols, not Washington, D.C.
Negotiators for the U.S. House and Senate have agreed on a framework to revise the main federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, that would give more authority to states. The current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act, created a federal system of testing and accountability, and many educators and policy makers contended that that law was too constraining and created some harmful side-effects. The new framework, if approved by Congress and the president, would largely restore the system that existed prior to NCLB, in which states had greater authority over their testing and accountability systems.
NCLB was enacted in 2002, and was scheduled to expire in 2007. Congress has failed to revise the law since then, and the U.S. Department of Education has issued waivers to nearly all states from the law based on certain conditions. Many believe the Obama Administration over-stepped its authority in imposing these conditions on states. Ironically, this had the effect of putting more pressure on Congress to finally fix NCLB.
The bipartisan framework for the new law would retain NCLB’s requirement that states test all students in grades three through eight every year, and at least one grade every year in high school, in reading and mathematics. But unlike with NCLB, states would be able to create their own accountability system to determine the consequences associated with those tests. However, states would be required to intervene in schools in the lowest 5 percent of performance, those with groups of underserved students that consistently demonstrate low performance and those with graduation rates below 67 percent. What these interventions would look like would be up to the states.
At the same time, the new law if enacted would eliminate some programs and consolidate them into block grants to states. That’s a victory for Congressional Republicans.
The nuts and bolts
What would the new law mean? It would allow states to create their own assessment and accountability systems and provide less authority for the U.S. Department of Education in approving state plans. That’s in many ways the situation that existed in the 1990s. At that time, some states, such as Kentucky and Maryland, developed innovative assessment and accountability systems that resulted in improvements in student performance, but other states did little to hold schools accountable for achievement for all students.
The bipartisan framework would also allow states to move forward with the innovations they have been creating under NCLB waivers. Many states have been moving to develop new accountability systems that gauge school performance using a range of measures, not just test scores, and that incorporate the use of performance assessments and school-quality reviews to assess school performance and needs. Such systems are aimed at helping schools develop the capacity to improve instruction and learning, not just at pointing federal fingers at schools that are falling behind. States would have the autonomy and flexibility to continue these innovations under the new law.
The House-Senate agreement also authorizes a pilot program that would allow a handful of states to develop innovative assessment systems, which could include performance assessments and competency-based assessments. This provision could open the door to new methods of assessment that could transform instruction and learning.
What’s next? The agreement is far from final. The House and Senate need to appoint members of a conference committee that includes members from the education committees in both chambers, who would have to approve the agreement. Amendments are likely. Then, if the conferees can agree on a bill, both the House and Senate would have to adopt it, and the president would have to sign it.
If the law is enacted, it would usher in a new era in education policy. For more than a decade, the NCLB system has defined school practice, for good or ill, and the law has been a convenient target for anyone with concerns about what has happened in schools. The new law would create new possibilities, and new challenges. Let’s see what happens.
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.