WASHINGTON — The school accountability system at the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act would be completely reinvented under a proposal released Tuesday by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The measure, which is already being decried by civil rights groups as a giant step backward when it comes to accountability for the education of poor and minority children, would scrap the 10-year-old law’s signature yardstick, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. Instead, states would have to ensure that all students are making “continuous improvement.”
There would be no specific achievement targets, either for entire groups of students or for particular subgroups, such as minority students, English-language learners and students with disabilities. In the vast majority of cases, states would decide how — and whether — to intervene in struggling schools.
The long-awaited bill also would do the following:
- Codify the Race to Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhood programs, all top Obama administration reform initiatives.
- Require states to set college- and career-readiness standards.
- Largely keep the law’s testing system in place.
- Require states to develop new teacher evaluation systems.
States also would be required to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of high schools, elementary and middle schools. Intensive interventions would be required for those schools, as well as for so-called “dropout factories” — high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a reauthorization of the nation’s main K-12 education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was first enacted in 1965. With NCLB, the George W. Bush administration greatly expanded the federal role in education, particularly for disadvantaged students.
The law’s AYP accountability system — which required states to set their own yearly benchmarks with the requirement that 100 percent of their students are proficient in math and reading by the 2013-14 school year — has also raised questions about both feasibility and fairness. In 2010, 38 percent of schools failed to pass the ever-rising bar, including some traditionally high-performing schools that didn’t meet improvement goals.
Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would have liked to have had achievement targets in the new reauthorization bill, but he scrapped them, in part to keep the measure bipartisan. He has been negotiating with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the committee, for months.
“That was one of the compromises,” Harkin told reporters on Tuesday. He said the moment is right for a move away from achievement targets, in part because nearly all states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort to set nationwide educational standards for K-12.
“There’s a subtle shift here,” Harkin said. “We are moving into a partnership role with the states.”
He said the strength of the bill was that it “focuses on teaching and learning, not testing and sanctioning.”
The legislation comes less than a month after the Obama administration announced that it would offer waivers granting states some flexibility under the current law — if they are willing to embrace certain reforms.
Harkin said the proposed legislation would work better than waivers, because all states would have the same expectations, rather than being offered flexibility on a case-by-case basis.
The draft would keep in place the law’s requirement that states continue to report information on specific subgroups of students. And the law’s testing schedule for reading and math — grades three through eight and once in high school — would remain the same.
But the draft would permit states to use either one comprehensive test at the end of the year, or interim assessments to measure progress. That would be a shift from the current law, under which states generally use just one test each for reading and math.
States also would have to identify the 5 percent of schools with the biggest achievement gaps between subgroup students and other students, and develop plans for addressing the problem.
The legislation also would direct states to develop teacher and principal evaluation systems based on multiple factors, including student achievement and classroom observations.
Evaluations would not need to incorporate “value-added” testing, but schools would have to use the evaluations to inform professional development, though not necessarily to help make personnel decisions. That would be a shift from the administration’s NCLB waivers, which specify that evaluations must be used for personnel decision.