What's Next After NCLB?

Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, legislation that replaces No Child Left Behind, and reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The new law is far from perfect, and it will be months, perhaps years, before changes are fully felt.

There are several ways that ESSA is good news for Oregon educators. First and foremost, it shifts much more responsibility to the state and local level. Students still must be tested in reading and math each year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, but states now have much more latitude to set goals and determine what accountability looks like. In fact, the new law has no role for the federal government when it comes to teacher evaluations, and it eliminates the rigid Annual Yearly Progress framework, leaving states to determine how best to address struggling schools. States are also required to include indicators beyond test scores when measuring success, such as school climate, student engagement, and access to well-rounded curricula, and the law also formally recognizes that art and music are important subjects.

ESSA also creates a pilot program for a handful of states to test alternative assessment systems at the local level, opening the door to educator-controlled assessments such as projects and portfolios like those in use in the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which several PAT members and PPS officials visited last year. States are also allowed to set caps limiting the time students can spend taking tests under the new law.

Of course, ESSA is still entangled in the various priorities of corporate education reformers, from expanding charter schools to loosening the standards for certifying teachers.  And while the high stakes elements are not as direct as NCLB, they are still there. States that fail to produce test score data for 95 percent of all students risk losing Title I funds, for example. Advocates are also worried that ESSA will force more special education students to take standardized tests because the law limits alternative assessments to no more than 1 percent of students because of “significant cognitive disabilities.” 

All this means we still have our work cut out for us if we are going to ensure that city and state officials truly live up to the equity goals that motivated the original federal legislation fifty years ago. Now more than ever, we need PAT members and our parent allies to keep pushing to take full advantage of the ESSA’s potential to reverse 15 years of test-driven education policy.