Concerns raised about law replacing No Child Left Behind

One month after Congress approved legislation shifting oversight of student accountability standards from federal to state control, state officials, including those in Pennsylvania, are planning how to establish and measure those new standards.

The end of No Child Left Behind, passed by Congress in 2001 and put into effect in 2002, was welcomed by many who objected to its focus on testing and to the complex reporting requirements. The program also did not come close to its goal for 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

But some civil rights and education advocacy groups are concerned that the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the former federal statute known as No Child Left Behind, will create an environment that will not require some under-achieving schools to improve.

“We are concerned that without federal oversight that the schools in Pennsylvania can overlook the needs of educationally vulnerable students,” said Cheryl Kleiman, staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center.

The D.C.-based civil rights organization Advancement Project cited the case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 unanimously declared state-sponsored segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

“History tells us the federal government is a necessary party in ensuring equity in education,” the organization said in a release shortly after passage of the ESSA. “Without federal interventions segregated schools would have persisted.”

While, the ESSA was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in December, its exact details won’t be known to states until the voluminous legislation is translated into regulations by the U.S. Department of Education. It takes effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said the department “is encouraged by the changes brought about by the ESSA,” and plans to work with stakeholders in the development of Pennsylvania’s assessment plan.  The department is working on a timeline for the plan’s completion.

The NCLB required the reporting of student achievement data that was broken down by subgroups such as minorities, English Language Learners, special education and economically disadvantaged students.

Signed into law in 2002, the NCLB created the measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, and required all students to hit proficiency targets that increased each year. Schools with grade levels and student groups that did not hit the annual targets were labeled and required to devise improvement plans. Though it was never acted upon, the threat of the loss of federal funds hung over the heads of states and districts if appropriate actions weren’t taken

The ultimate goal was 100 percent proficiency by 2014. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card,” “proficiency” rates in 2014 were below 50 percent for every racial and ethnic group, in both reading and math, in both fourth and eighth grade. There were two exceptions: Asian students in all subjects scored 51-64 percent and white students in fourth-grade math scored at 54 percent.

Critics of the NCLB said that it set an unattainable goal, created an excessive focus on annual testing and did not take into account other measures of progress. In order to address those issues, ESSA will require states to take a more comprehensive look at student achievement with less emphasis on testing.

Under the ESSA, states are mandated to create academic plans that will produce students who are college or career ready, without remediation. However, they also are required to intervene only in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, high schools where a third or more of the students fail to graduate and schools with persistent achievement gaps.

Carey Harris, executive director for educational advocacy group A+ Schools said the legislation leaves room for chronically underachieving schools that don’t fall within the bottom 5 percent to “fall through the cracks.”

“Five percent is a very low bar,” she said. “None of the city public schools would even meet that target, yet you have some that have struggled academically for years. I would hope this legislation would get very serious about addressing that, so we’re not looking at Westinghouse, looking at Carrick, looking at [University Prep] in 10 years and saying they’re still no better off.”

Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the education consulting and research group Bellwether Education Partners and former adviser in the policy office of the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that about 17,000 schools in the nation that would have been required to come up with meaningful improvement plans under NCLB will now be “off the hook.”

Ms. Reigelman said Gov. Tom Wolf is dedicated to making sure that every Pennsylvania student is college or career ready when they graduate and that he has lobbied for “historic” funding increases to Pennsylvania to work toward that goal.

A holdover from the NCLB included in the ESSA is that student achievement data will still be reported by subgroups. But critics question its value if there is no federal mandate for improvement beyond the bottom 5 percent. However, states can set their own target percentage for improvement, but would receive no federal funding about the bottom 5 percent.

“A lot of that data is available to the public now, although some states and districts are better than others about publicizing it,” said Dwanna Nicole, senior policy advocate for Advancement Project. “Even with all that data, if the school district and state aren’t going to use it to ensure equitable education for young people, then it doesn’t matter.”

Civil rights and educational advocacy leaders say it’s their hope that their organizations can fill the void of federal oversight by holding schools and districts accountable and working with states as those plans are formulated.

That collaboration “should begin now,” Ms. Nicole said.

The groups want to see testing become less of a focus in the measurement formulas. In its place, they want to have other factors incorporated, including the annual academic growth of student groups, school climate, and how students are disciplined. In Pennsylvania, Ms. Reigelman said the governor and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera have had “ongoing meetings with stakeholders to explore alternatives and develop new measures” to make the state’s School Performance Profiles a more effective evaluation tool.

Ron Cowell, executive director of the Education Policy Leadership Center, said the new federal law has been applauded because it gives states far more flexibility than the NCLB, but with that flexibility comes responsibility.

“They need to respond in a way that we don’t lose a sense of responsibility and accountability for how schools are serving particularly kids who are most dependent on public education and historically were not well-served,” Mr. Cowell said.

Like Ms. Reigelman, Mr. Cowell raised funding as an obstacle for those putting together Pennsylvania’s plans. He said to overcome the lack of federal oversight, the state needs an aggressive accountability plan, but that requires adequate and stable funding from federal and state sources.

Mr. Cowell said it will be difficult for the state education department to determine the amount of financial resources it will have in the future, given that the state budget still is not settled and that the parties are in disagreement about the extent of education funding. This is compounded by the fact that education in Pennsylvania is still recovering from the nearly $1 billion reduction in funding in 2011.

In addition, he said, the department, similar to state education departments across the country, has been downsized in staff considerably in the past decade, leaving a smaller staff to carry out the federal mandates.

“When you start out with inadequate resources and no predictability about what available resources will look like year to year in the future, it’s pretty hard to engage in serious planning,” Mr. Cowell said.