Author Archives: Anne Hyslop

Let’s Make a Deal: The ESEA Compromise Congress Should Make

Just like your favorite sitcom, Congressional Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in a will they/won’t they relationship for eight years over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Could the 114th Congress be the season where they finally get together? That’s what some ardent, right-leaning ESEA watchers (like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and AEI’s Rick Hess) are hoping, given their general fandom of Senator Lamar Alexander’s current approach. But despite hopes for consensus, Alexander’s draft bill actually makes it harder to reconcile the largest issue on the table: the federal role in education.

Let me explain. New hope for an ESEA compromise isn’t just driven by ideology. On the policy surface, it also appears that the stage could be set for a deal. Everyone agrees on a more limited set of federal requirements than NCLB. For example, both political right and left think that states (not the feds) should play a starring role in creating school rating systems based on performance, graduation rates, and other measures; identifying low-performing schools; and designing and implementing interventions to improve them.

Further bolstering the mood? The annual testing plot-twist nobody everybody saw coming appears to be a mere diversion to create fresh conflict between the major players, instead of recycling storylines from past seasons (see: the 112th Congress “Should teacher evaluations be mandated?” and the 113th “Should Title I funding be portable?”). In predictable fashion, the annual testing drama seems likely to be resolved mid-season. There are just too many key political players (e.g. Kline, Murray, Boehner, Duncan), civil rights organizations, business groups, and state leaders defending annual testing for Alexander to open the grade-span testing floodgates.

Thus, old conflicts are set to re-emerge in the coming episodes of the reauthorization drama. And none looms larger than “What is the appropriate federal role?” It’s the “We were on a break!” conflict driving the entire ESEA reauthorization plot. Continue reading

What’s Behind Door #3? The Giant Local Testing Loophole in Alexander’s ESEA Proposal

There’s been no shortage of column inches devoted to testing and the “choose your own adventure” approach in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s draft to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And annual testing will likely dominate the discussion at the first Senate hearing on reauthorization today, even though many (including key witnesses, like Brookings’ Marty West) have already shown why backing away from annual testing is a horrible plan.

But annual testing is only half the story. That’s because Alexander’s bill doesn’t just offer two statewide testing options for policymakers to fight about. It also offers a separate testing option for districts on top of the state choices. And although education wonks are up-in-arms over the merits of door #1 vs. door #2 for states, most have, unfortunately, ignored the giant local testing loophole that is behind door #3.

Through it, districts could opt-out of statewide testing and use their own tests instead, regardless of whether Congress chooses door #1 or door #2. But the real kicker is that this loophole isn’t actually new at all. Alexander’s draft bill just makes it far easier for districts to take advantage of–and abuse–existing flexibility. 

Districts would only need state approval that their local assessments meet the same federal requirements with which state tests comply. And given the increasing number of districts pushing back on state testing, door #3 would be an irresistible option for many, even as it undermines the comparability of data between schools for evaluation and accountability; states’ abilities to provide technical assistance, support, and professional development to districts; and state investments in new assessment systems aligned to college- and career-ready standards.

Continue reading

Grade-Span Accountability Is A Bad Idea: Just Ask CAP and the AFT

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) have released a joint set of principles for ESEA reauthorization. They call for preserving statewide annual testing requirements for students, but they would base school-level accountability only on tests taken once per grade span—once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school.

Like the Education Trust, we think this is a bad idea. Grade-span accountability solves none of the problems of our current system while making other problems worse. Namely:

  1. It doesn’t address concerns about over-testing. Students could be taking the same number of tests as they have in the past, particularly if districts don’t reduce the number of duplicative and unnecessary local tests. CAP has rightly cited these local tests as the root of the problem, but this proposal would not reduce the number of federally mandated tests.
  2. Rather than decreasing the stakes on standardized tests, the AFT/CAP proposal would amplify them. Under their plan, a 5th grader would no longer be taking tests that reflect just on the 5th grade. His or her results would be the basis on which their entire school was judged. How, exactly, does this help “de-link [academic standards] from high-stakes tests”, as AFT President Randi Weingarten suggested a year ago?
  3. It makes it even harder to focus on specific subgroups. NCLB held schools accountable for every subgroup that had a sufficient number of students (called the minimum “n-size”). But under the CAP/ AFT proposal, a school’s 5th grade African-American, ELL, or SWD groups could be too small to meet the minimum n-size and the whole school’s disadvantaged students could go uncounted. This may sound wonky and technical, but it becomes a pretty huge issue even at relatively small n-sizes (such as 10 or 20 students). Arne Duncan has estimated that hundreds of thousands of students were invisible to state accountability systems because of n-size issues. CAP has praised states in the past for lowering their n-sizes, but their plan to have fewer students “count” toward a school’s accountability rating would mean less attention on important subgroups of students.
  4. We already have anecdotes about teachers who prefer to avoid tested grades and subjects. They may prefer teaching in 2nd grade, where there are no required standardized tests, than 3rd grade, where there are. But it’s tough to avoid the current tests altogether because they’re given in 3rd through 8th grade. Grade-span testing would make it even tougher to attract teachers into those few areas with much higher stakes. Who wants to be a 5th grade teacher when they might responsible for their entire school? In most places, they won’t even earn any extra money for all the added pressure! Moreover, this is exactly the kind of policy the AFT previously opposed for teacher evaluations. A year ago, Weingarten wrote: “In Florida, the system went completely haywire, giving teachers value-added scores for students they had never taught.” If it’s not okay for educator accountability, why is it okay for school accountability?
  5. Standardized tests are often criticized for merely reflecting student demographics. While states and districts have been slow to implement accountability systems that incorporate student growth, with annual statewide testing, we at least had a hope of shifting attention to how much progress students make over time. CAP and the AFT once shared this hope. Yes, not all that long ago AFT advocated for an ESEA that “judges school effectiveness—the only valid and fair basis for accountability—by measuring the progress that schools achieve with the same students over time.” With longer gaps between tests that count for accountability purposes, we’re more likely to lean even heavier on raw test scores, measures that are highly correlated with student demographics.
  6. Under this plan, students and families would still get a sense of how much progress they’re making. That’s important, but it’s odd to then turn around and suggest that states and school districts should ignore this same information for determining school progress. As CAP’s 2011 NCLB recommendations suggest, “Measuring and reporting student data is not sufficient to improve our nation’s schools. Congress should take several steps to ensure schools act on that data to boost student outcomes.” We assume they did not mean several steps backwards.
  7. AFT and CAP pitch their proposal as targeting interventions to schools with large achievement gaps. That’s true, it would identify schools with gaps. But, ironically, it would give no credit to schools that are actually closing those achievement gaps. CAP used to support annual gap-closing goals. But now, schools with large concentrations of economically disadvantaged and minority students, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities would all be penalized unfairly, worse than they are under NCLB.

Ultimately, this plan would move us closer to how other countries do testing: fewer tests with much higher stakes. Rather than having regular check-ups on student progress, with relatively low stakes on those results, we’d have much higher stakes attached to a smaller number of test scores. Fortunately, AFT and CAP have already told us why this is a bad idea.

Alexander’s ESEA Draft: A Plan Isn’t a Good Plan

We already know just how little has changed in Senator Alexander’s new ESEA reauthorization proposal since his last stab at rewriting the federal law in 2013. But it’s worth elaborating on just how far Alexander is willing to go to “stop the national school board.” Never mind Senator Murray’s and Secretary Duncan’s insistence that federal policy must serve as a safeguard for educational equity and opportunity, and combat “the soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional.” Alexander’s draft does exactly the opposite. It doesn’t just provide more options for states by limiting the federal role. It allows for unlimited options by eviscerating the federal role.

That shift is most apparent in Alexander’s approach to Title I. Under his proposal, nearly $15 billion in Title I dollars would be distributed without any real mechanism to ensure state compliance. In all, I counted over a dozen ways in which federal oversight of state implementation would be hampered in Title I alone: The bill would create barriers for the Department to enact regulations if a negotiated rulemaking fails to reach consensus and would prohibit the Secretary from specifying, defining, or prescribing just about anything related to state standards, assessments, accountability and improvement systems, or educator evaluations. In short, the theory of action behind the nation’s largest federal K-12 education program would boil down to: submit a plan.

In general, I’m not a fan of plans. Just try reading the ones states submitted to receive an NCLB waiver–so many details, so little information on whether those detailed policies are actually improving student outcomes. But the Title I plans states would develop to comply with Alexander’s proposal could be far worse, lacking both detailed narrative and actual evidence to prove states meet key requirements.

That’s because, as my colleague Chad Aldeman pointed out (again), Alexander relies on assurances that states are holding up their end of the bargain, rather than demonstrations that they are (as NCLB requires). Assurances can be nothing more than promises—and the Secretary has few tools to enforce them in the new draft.

What does policymaking via assurance look like? Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of a Title I state plan that could meet the requirements of Alexander’s proposal:

Dear Secretary,

Here in the 51st state, we have really great standards.  Our colleges pinky-promise that students who meet the standards won’t be placed in remediation.

Further, we have really great tests, even though a handful of districts are creating their own and our process for ensuring reliability or consistent scoring is half-baked. And we’re also only administering state tests in three grades, so that means there aren’t any statewide growth measures—just local ones, maybe, but we swear we’re keeping track of that.

Speaking of growth, we have an accountability system that’s super awesome. It’s based on a multiple measures dashboard (see attached 47-factor dashboard that helpfully breaks down information into an easily downloadable, 33-page, 10-font report for each school), that includes the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (since that’s the only detail the feds require), proficiency rates, and a bunch of other metrics.

And if we do find that some Title I schools are low-performing—and we’re not saying that they are—we promise that our districts are working hard to improve them. We don’t know if those efforts are based on science or research, but we’re sure you don’t mind.

Keep an eye out for our report cards!

Sincerely, 51st State

Alexander’s draft bill may appear to keep at least some key elements of federal policy intact: challenging standards, testing, school ratings, improvement strategies, and so forth. But thanks to the reliance on assurances, its Title I provisions are merely options masquerading as enforceable requirements.

It just goes to show, the only thing worse than a plan… is a really bad one.

Why Patty Murray is the Key to an ESEA Deal

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) released his hotly awaited discussion draft for a reauthorization of ESEA: the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But given that the 114th Congress has only been in session for a couple weeks, it should come as no surprise that this draft isn’t really new. It’s mostly his 2013 bill (of the same name) repackaged, as Chad Aldeman wrote earlier. Still, Alexander is determined to shepherd it through Congress by summer, despite the fact that this proposal failed to win a single Democratic vote in committee last time around.

But maybe times have changed. At least that’s what some, like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, are hoping. After all, in floor speeches yesterday, both Alexander and Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) praised the virtues of bipartisanship in fixing No Child Left Behind. And Murray is known for being a savvy consensus-builder in her time at the helm of the Senate Budget Committee.

I wouldn’t count on it this time. That’s because Alexander and Murray may agree on the tone of the debate, but not on policy. And in Senator Murray’s view, the problem with NCLB is not an out-of-control federal government. Rather, Murray defended the federal role, even though her own state lost its waiver from NCLB because of it, and laid out key principles for reauthorization that echoed Secretary Duncan’s remarks on Monday: the need for a new ESEA to ensure that states adopt high standards, better and more streamlined annual testing systems, and strong accountability policies, alongside increased investments in innovation and early childhood.

As leader of the committee Democrats and a member of Senate minority leadership, Murray’s ESEA stance is a leading indicator of how Alexander’s draft will be received, and proceed, through the Senate. Her remarks may not have been as forceful as the Secretary’s, but that only proves her value in the coming negotiations–as one that could bring the two sides closer together (UPDATE: especially after Duncan’s tepid reaction to the draft bill).

But in making so few changes to his 2013 draft bill, Alexander has yet to make a serious effort to bring Murray into the fold. And that’s a mistake. It’s true that her support may not be critical to getting Alexander the 60 votes he needs on the floor, especially if he tries to woo anti-testing, union-friendly Democrats. But her support remains critical to getting the 60 votes Alexander will need to get a bill to President Obama that he can sign.

If these are Murray’s policy preferences—and if Secretary Duncan insists on combatting the “soft bigotry of ‘it’s optional’”—then Alexander’s draft bill just isn’t going to cut it. Not in the super-majority Senate, and not on the President’s desk.