Congress is turning its attention to the No Child Left Behind education law this week, with a focus on testing and how much power the federal government should cede to states.
The Senate will take up its “Every Child Achieves Act” Tuesday after months of delays and partisan bickering, and a clarion call Monday from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the bill doesn’t go far enough in closing the nation’s achievement gap.
During a call with reporters, Duncan and Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of the Domestic Policy Council, stressed that individual states would not have enough accountability measures in place to improve dropout and graduation rates.
“Currently, neither bill being considered, in the House or Senate, has sufficient accountability measures,” Muñoz said. “That’s unacceptable, and the administration believes strongly that we have to make improvements.” The House is scheduled to tackle an NCLB reauthorization bill later this month.
“We cannot support it as it stands,” Duncan said of the Senate bill, declining to say whether President Barack Obama would veto the bill if it hits his desk.
The Senate legislation would authorize an innovation program that lets five states devise project-based assessment measures rather than administer traditional exams, a move anti-testing advocates welcome.
The bill “makes significant assessment reform progress,” Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, wrote in the Washington Post Monday. “It largely returns control over accountability to the states.”
The new project-based assessment system could vary widely across schools and districts, but the results must be comparable throughout the state.
But while the bill would allow states to decide whether tests scores should reflect on teacher evaluations, it would also continue mandating standardized state tests every year in grades three through eight and in high school for reading and math.
Another big issue likely to play out in the reauthorization process is student data privacy.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who introduced a controversial bill that experts say would severely limit the use of student information to improve academic outcomes, wants to include it in the NCLB rewrite.
Paige Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit education advocacy group, told FedScoop she is “very concerned” with the language in Vitter’s bill because it would restrict teachers and parents from high-quality student information.
The legislation would also get rid of adequate yearly progress, known as AYP, a formula that determines whether schools get more services or have to shut down entirely because of consistently poor performance.
Instead, each state would be able to create its own accountability system, which would include test scores, graduation rates and at least one other measure determined by the state, Neill writes.
White House officials said the provision would not provide the federal government with enough accountability measures.
“We would like to see language that would allow us to measure what’s going on in the lowest-performing schools, as well as to collect data with respect to particular subgroups and be responsible for doing something with what that data shows,” Muñoz said. “We’re eager to see the Senate address those issues.”
She added that the problem is not about federal versus state control but ensuring that states can assume responsibility when students fail. Just four out of 10 students attending the lowest-performing schools graduate on time compared to an 87 percent graduation rate at other high schools, according to White House officials.
“We cant just stand by year after year and let them fail,” Duncan said. “We must ensure that educators have the resources they need and reach the most vulnerable students.”
Conservative groups are clamoring for an amendment to the bill called the A Plus Act, which allows states to receive federal money through grants without any oversight or strings attached, according to ThinkProgress. Allowing students to opt out of state testing without penalties is another amendment to be considered.
Meanwhile, liberal groups have balked at the bill, arguing that it doesn’t adequately empower the Department of Education.
About two weeks ago, 33 civil rights groups signed a letter addressing concerns that the federal government would not have enough oversight over states and schools that have mostly disadvantaged students.
The legislation passed earlier this year through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but there were disputes over certain amendments.
Amendments to the bill will be considered again on Tuesday night, The Hill reported.
The NCLB law has not been updated since nearly a decade ago, and was first passed during the Bush administration.