The U.S. Senate voted 85 to 12 Wednesday to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill that would replace the unpopular education law known as No Child Left Behind.
Shortly after the vote, the White House announced that President Barack Obama plans to sign the bill Thursday. But even before the bill made it to Obama's desk, a debate about what the new bill means for California's schools began to swirl.
The new law aims to take a more holistic approach to evaluating schools, using qualities beyond test scores, partially in response to concerns that standardized testing has gone too far in the U.S. There's a dispute as to whether the law does — and whether it should — ultimately require that those multiple factors be boiled down into a single number that allows parents and the public to compare and rate one school to another.
Like its George W. Bush-era predecessor, ESSA continues to mandate annual standardized testing in grades 3-8 and once during high school. The results of how different groups of students fare on those tests will continue to be publicly reported. Unlike No Child Left Behind, though, the bill doesn't specify performance goals or punishments for schools that underperform. That ESSA leaves states more room to be flexible has caused excitement in California, which, for the most part, has been creating its own education policy for the last few years.
California is already creating its own accountability system. The Board of Education suspended the state's Academic Performance Index, a measure of rating schools based on test scores. Instead, the state is devising a new system that looks at different factors together, such as how quickly students who don't speak English are becoming fluent, college readiness, dropout rates, suspensions and school climate.
State officials had hoped to finish creating this system by the summer, but ESSA might change that. California Board of Education President Mike Kirst said the board's idea for a new accountability system looks more like the dashboard on a cheap car, where you constantly monitor different factors, such as the gas and the speedometer. In the case of schools, those factors include test scores in addition to college readiness, graduation rates, school climate, and suspension rates, among others.
Under ESSA, states have to devise a "system of meaningfully differentiating" schools by looking at academics in addition to at least one other factor, as long as the academics are given "much greater weight." ESSA calls for states to intervene in the bottom 5% of their schools, in addition to schools where specific groups of students consistently underperform and high schools with graduation rates below 67%. States can determine what they do to those schools, as long as the interventions are "evidence-based."
That language makes it sound as though, ultimately, states must boil down every factor they're looking at and give each school a rating. "If we're forced to come up with number, our debate is over," Kirst said. "We can't turn down federal aid. We should be looking at a dashboard, more than a single thing. … The idea that it all has to come down to a single number, that was the problem of the API."
Creating one number from the many factors, he said, is "a game changer." He said he hasn't seen any science behind how states or school districts weight these factors against each other in creating a single score.
As to whether the law actually mandates it, though, "The basic view people have come to is that it really will be determined in the regulatory process," Kirst said, adding that he hopes the state takes an active role.
Others are interpreting the law and its intent differently. "A data dashboard is insufficient to meet the law," said Ryan Smith, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, an education advocacy group. "Parents and communities need an at-a-glance measure of how schools are doing and mountains of data can't do."
But the downside to that one measure, said David Plank, a Stanford University professor and the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, is that it can be reductive and turn education into a rat race. “That’s what parents will focus on,” he said.
The alternative would be complicated, to say the least. “It could be there’s some other way they could come up with, a cut point for each indicator,” said Scott Sargrad, a former Obama education official who is now director for standards and accountability on the education policy team at the Center for American Progress. “It’s possible, but I’m not sure how they might do it.”
Some, though, were just happy the bill passed — No Child Left Behind expired in 2007, but Congress stalled on its replacement, even as both parties acknowledged it was outdated. "I'm having Christmas, I'm having the Fourth of July, I'm having a happy Hanukkah, I'm having raindrops on roses," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Assn. union. "It's all about multiple measures — it's not Congress saying hit this test score and someone gets punished. That there's a way in this law for schools to identify students that aren't doing well, that's not a bad thing."
The leadership of the Los Angeles Unified School District also reacted positively to the news. "We are pleased with the overall balance in the bill regarding accountability and school improvement," said Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines. "We look forward to working with the California Department of Education in designing the state's new school accountability system."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was also pleased. "Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act is an important step in moving away from a one-size-fits-all education system, which is not working for our children," she said in a statement. "This bill gives states and local school districts more flexibility to use federal funds to provide resources and to teach their students in a way that best works for them."
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