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Bipartisan ESEA Redraft Released

by Dan Mangan
 | Apr 08, 2015

The bipartisan agreement for fixing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) announced yesterday by the leadership of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) would end the NCLB’s federal test-based accountability system and restore to the states the responsibility for determining how to use federally required tests for accountability purposes.

Wade Henderson, Leadership
Conference of Civil and Human Rights

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the HELP Committee, explained that the agreement “continues important measurements of the academic progress of students but restores to states, local school districts, teachers, and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.” He added that the new agreement “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking member, agreed, noting that the new legislation “gives states and districts more flexibility while retaining strong federal guardrails,” and described the bipartisan compromise as “an important step in fixing the broken No Child Left Behind law.”

Action on the revised legislation, including any amendments, begins next Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.

Lessons of Experience

NCLB was the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is the federal government’s main K–12 law. That reauthorization expired in 2007. Its requirement for demonstrating adequate yearly progress (AYP) based on student testing proved untenable, as most states found that too many of their schools were simply not measuring up to the AYP standard. After the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) introduced a waiver alternative, 43 states eventually applied.

The lessons of that experience have had a heavy influence on the latest attempt to pass ESEA reauthorization. In the hearings and roundtable held by the HELP Committee, many of the witnesses spoke to the distortive effect high-stakes testing has on classroom instruction. Too many tests, too much time wasted in administering them, too much time spent teaching to them, and the resulting loss of real learning—these points were stressed over and over again.

The scope and utility of the assessments were also challenged. Is a student’s computerized test performance on a given day a fair measure of a year’s worth of learning? Would other, more expansive assessments be truer, if not fairer, both to the student and the instructor? These questions were posed and reflected on throughout the process.

Turning the Corner

On the central issue of high-stakes testing, the bipartisan draft now turns a momentous corner, returning to the states the responsibility for creating accountability systems to insure that all students are achieving.

The bill retains the federally required two tests in reading and math per child per year in grades 3–8, and once in high school. States must keep these tests but can independently determine what weight to accord them, and states are also permitted to use other measures of student and school performance in their accountability systems.

A compromise seems to have been reached here designed to steer clear of AYP-style federal oversight mandates, while still keeping rigor in state accountability regimes and real pressure on nonperforming schools. Whether the redraft will do the job, if enacted into law, remains to be seen.

One recalls a passionate critique by Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights, during the first HELP Committee ESEA hearing in January. Henderson complained that the original draft bill “bent over backwards to accommodate the interests of state and local government entities that have both failed our children and avoided any real accountability for their failures.”

In any event, state-designed accountability systems must still meet federal requirements. All subgroups of students must be included. Student achievement data must be disaggregated to show whether all students are achieving, including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners. Challenging academic standards must also be set for all students. However, the federal government is prohibited from determining or approving those standards.

On this last point, one again senses a deliberate effort to compromise on the issue of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and whether the USED waiver program amounted to a backdoor CCSS mandate, turning Washington into a national school board, and leaving, as one senator put it, too vast a “federal footprint” on school systems.

Analyzing and Digesting

Education groups of all stripes are now analyzing and digesting the revised bill, as are other sources within the government and among the public at large. To become law, the ESEA reauthorization will need continued bipartisan support in Congress and enough teeth in its accountability provisions to convince the White House that the neediest students in the poorest school districts in the country will be served by it. Time will tell.

The HELP Committee’s original draft bill for the current reauthorization effort, released this past January, was styled the “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.” In the new bipartisan draft, the bill gets renamed as the “Every Child Achieves Act of 2015.”

If you’re going to peruse the draft, be forewarned: it’s a 601-page behemoth that will take a bit of time to get through. You might want to start with the summary.

As the bill goes through additional debate and markup starting next week, points of contention will be identified, further recommendations submitted, and new language proposed via the amendment process. Literacy advocates, including the International Literacy Association, will be following the process closely, taking additional action if necessary.


Dan Mangan (dmangan@/) is the Director of Public Affairs at the international Literacy Association. Previously, he was ILA’s Strategic Communications Director and Publications Director and launched the original Reading Today magazine and Reading Today Online (now Literacy Daily). He is a veteran of commercial publishing, a former journalist, and an attorney.


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