Good Life

Focus on research: NCLB’s replacement has its own flaws

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

Move over, No Child Left Behind, the federal law that introduced yearly high-stakes testing to schools nationwide. Several years overdue, the federal education act was finally reauthorized mid-December in a new version of legislation — the Every Student Succeeds Act. This bill replaces NCLB as well as President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs.

The main headline, however, is that this new piece of legislation won’t feel different to most families. The testing era continues for our children, much to the dismay of many. Students still must take mandatory tests every year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Most children with special needs will still take the tests with no accommodations, regardless of their learning needs. English Language Learners will still take the test the first year they enter the U.S. public school system, regardless of their language ability (although the reporting of the ELL scores has changed slightly).

States, districts and schools under ESSA will notice greater changes than families. The biggest change to the law is that nearly all decision-making authority has been delegated back to the states, which now once again have great discretion regarding choice of assessment, standards and consequences for failure. Because of this discretion, what ESSA looks like in schools will vary greatly depending on what each state decides to do.

States will also get to decide how to allow families to opt out of standardize tests. Here in Pennsylvania, we have one of the broadest opt-out laws on the books, and it looks unlikely to change with the new legislation. Any family can choose to opt out of PSSAs for religious or ethical reasons. A simple procedure, it involves contacting the school principal, coming in to view the exam, then sending an email to the school superintendent expressing the ethical/religious reason for opting out.

Thus, what will be true across the nation is that schools will no longer be judged solely on test scores. States will decide how to evaluate schools based on a portfolio of measures. States now must also include standardized tests, graduation rates and English Language proficiency. The greatest change is the addition of an “opportunity to learn” measurement as a part of assessing school progress. States get to pick this indicator, which could focus on student engagement, teacher engagement, access to and completion of advanced coursework or school climate, among other options.

States will also have discretion regarding how to try to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools. Gone are mandatory tutoring and school choice consequences. Now, the districts must create a turnaround plan if they have schools measuring in the bottom 5 percent statewide or have high dropout rates. If schools fail to show improvement after four years, states could choose to fire teachers and administrators or turn the school into a public charter, much like the current legislation.

This 1,061-page bill contains a much broader set of policies than usually makes the headlines. I highlight three notable changes from NCLB. First is a dramatic increase in the recognition of the need for Early Childhood Education policy, including funding for program coordination, quality and broadening access to early-childhood education.

Second, teachers and teacher organizations are extremely happy that teacher evaluations are no longer tied to standardized testing. Additionally, many funding streams for teacher support have increased, including professional development monies, class size reduction and funding to train teachers on literacy and science, technology, engineering and math issues.

The largest red flag of the bill, and the one not being spoken about, is the creation of Teacher Preparation Academies. ESSA considers completion of TPAs as equivalent to a master’s degree for the purposes of hiring, retention, compensation and promotion. Instructors in these academies do not even need a higher degree to prepare teachers. These alternative pathways will create a much lower quality certification standard for teacher preparation than traditional teaching programs.

Teacher education experts are starting to sound the alarm of the dire consequences that this part of the legislation could cause, as well as raising the question of the legal ability of the federal government to decide what can and cannot count as a master’s degree in individual states. Research has shown that Teach for America and Teacher Fellowship models have failed to adequately support and retain teachers, and this new version of training teachers quickly will lead to the least prepared teachers being placed in the classrooms with high levels of underachieving children and the fewest resources.

While many hoped that new legislation would bring a reduction to student testing, the new law tinkers with high-stakes assessment rather than dramatically changing it. The main changes have occurred in the smaller policies passed as part of the massive legislation, including the promise of early childhood funding and the potential for lower-quality teacher preparation. Missing from the bill are efforts to address the larger issues of education policy, including how to improve the equity of school funding and to address the growing segregation of our schools.

Dana Mitra is an associate professor of education in the Educational Theory and Policy program and co-director of the Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics at Penn State.

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