Proposed NCLB Reforms Mean Less Federal Oversight

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is getting a much-needed overhaul.

In July, the Senate bipartisan committee on Education, Health, Labor, and Pensions unanimously passed the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA). Congress also has a similar bill up for debate, the Student Success Act (SSA), though it passed in the House with only Republican support. A committee will meet to compose a bill to be voted upon by both houses.

The State of NCLB

ECAA is regarded as the most viable means of revising the President Bush–era NCLB, which became law in 2002, and is widely considered to have failed in its objective to improve education quality. When it was enacted, NCLB was the first major education reform since President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. ESEA sought to rectify the influence of poverty on a child's education, and it was supposed to give equal educational opportunities to all students — particularly those with low-income and minority status. The law has allowed the government to provide funding to local education agencies charged with remedying problems in local districts. The ESEA increasingly sparked debate about spending and regulations, and it drew criticism for being ineffectual.

NCLB was purportedly intended to give equal education opportunities to all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But the law came with a plethora of mandates intended to regulate funding and increase accountability.

NCLB requires mandatory testing of students in third through eighth grades and high school. Schools that fail to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) are threatened with penalties. If schools exhibit low-performing test scores four years in a row, they face several possible penalties: They may be closed, converted to charters, or forced to undergo a change in administration. These sanctions would usually result in a decrease in or elimination of federal funding, but according to the Washington Post, this has yet to happen. Criticism of the law has focused on the rules and procedures for testing, and on the assessment of test scores. While schools in low-income districts are supposed to receive higher funding levels than their counterparts in high-income districts, NCLB's testing mandates allow for low-income schools to receive the highest penalties.

The federal government has used test scores to assess a school's success, and these same test scores are tied to teacher evaluations. Teachers are also required to be highly qualified, though teachers’ unions take issue with the ways that this determination has been made. It has typically meant that teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree and no provisional certifications, and that they must possess expertise in a particular subject area. But “expertise” is defined at the state level, and time spent teaching cannot be used toward determining mastery. For example, a new teacher who passed a state-administered test in chemistry would be considered more highly qualified than someone who hadn’t taken the test, but who had been teaching the subject for a number of years.

When States Opt Out of NCLB

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education began offering flexibility in the form of waivers to states so they could exert more control over how federal funds were used toward school improvement efforts. Waivers allow states to implement their own plans for improving education outcomes for students, improve the quality of teaching, and close achievement gaps.

All but eight states have had waivers for mandatory testing extended or approved, with additional states pending. Only Washington, California, and Iowa have had their waivers revoked or applications denied, based on a failure to comply with the requirements of NCLB’s teacher evaluation system.

Oregon, a state that recently passed legislation making it easier for parents to opt out of mandatory testing on behalf of their children, just received a three-year waiver. NCLB requires schools to report test scores for 95 percent of students, a mandate that Oregon just managed to meet this past spring, with few exemptions. If more than five percent of students choose to opt out of standardized testing, however, the state will be in jeopardy of losing federal funds that would typically be designated for schools with fewer financial resources.

The Reauthorization of NCLB

There are several amendments in the ECAA and SSA education reform bills that will be up for debate in the coming months. Many of these offer states greater flexibility in determining teacher effectiveness and student achievement. Decisions regarding a school's performance would, under these terms, likely be made at the local level, though both require assessment of student proficiency in reading, math, and science.

As for teachers, the national standard for determining who is "highly qualified" would be eliminated. States would establish their own definitions and benchmarks for teacher qualifications. States would also not be required to assess teacher performance, but they would be allowed to maintain or implement methods for doing so.

More federal funds would be allocated for early education programs.

In cases where the Department of Education wants to deny a state's proposed program, it would be required to provide substantial and evidentiary reasons.

Parental rights would also be expanded under new versions of the law, and charter and magnet school programs would undergo less oversight than is currently required.

As for testing, it would still be required to occur on similar timelines, but states would need to publish scores with breakdowns by income and race. Some states may be able to opt out of testing entirely, or to allow parents to opt out (as in Oregon) without being penalized. In other words, there will be less federal oversight of standardized testing.

Both new versions of the law would eliminate the Common Core standards, but they would instead require states to provide challenging curricula that are both vocational and college-preparatory in nature.

The federal government would also no longer need to approve a state's standards. NCLB currently mandates that schools account for two things: test scores that demonstrate proficiency in math and reading, and student performance, typically measured in graduation rates. Student performance, however, is variable by state and school. Under the proposed ECAA and SSA, states develop their own accountability systems, and the federal government would have little to no oversight over how states assess student performance. The SSA, however, would require that schools set aside a portion of their Title I funding to put toward school improvement, while the ECAA would provide federal funding for state intervention.

Additionally, the SSA would allow Title I funds to follow students should they choose to transfer schools, rather than remain in the district for which it was allocated.

The most controversial aspect of the new proposed legislation pertains to proposed funding allocations. While both proposals would eliminate the potentially punitive nature of reading and math proficiency assessment outcomes, the responsibility of holding schools accountable would fall instead to each state. With little federal oversight, states themselves would need to identify and improve low-performing schools. As options for school choice grow, there is the possibility that schools with low test scores — such as those in low-income neighborhoods — may not receive the resources they need, particularly if the portability of Title I funds is enacted. Funds potentially could be diverted to schools with better scores.

While these proposed reforms are considered progressive, they still risk perpetuating the economic disparity and achievement gap that the current (and prospective future) law purportedly aims to address, under the guise of school choice.

In short, the proposed NCLB reforms don’t do enough to ensure the eradication of poor education for poor students.

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