Tag Archives: No Child Left Behind

The Coming ESSA Cliff

In a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend, I argued that the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), will radically diminish expectations for our nation’s public schools. I ran the numbers and found that, from NCLB’s peak until ESSA becomes fully implemented in 2017-18, about 17,000 schools will be let off the hook for student performance. We’ll shift from an expectation that all schools need to improve to an emphasis on just the worst of the worst performers.

This sets us up for a giant cliff. As NCLB ramped up expectations, more and more schools were identified for improvement. In 2011-12, we reached a peak of 19,270 schools nationwide on official “in need of improvement” lists. (Note that I’m explicitly NOT using the more commonly known “Adequate Yearly Progress” identification here, because nothing happened to schools until they failed to meet AYP for two consecutive years.) That was about 40 percent of Title I schools or 20 percent of all schools nationwide.

No one knew it then, but 2012 was the peak. The Obama Administration began granting waivers from NCLB that year, and the number of schools identified for improvement immediately began falling. It will plateau for the next couple years as states prepare for the new law, but in 2017-18 the number of schools identified for improvement will plummet all the way down to about 2,750 schools. Because not all schools receive Title I funding, that means less than 3 percent of schools nationwide will be told they need to improve.

(Click on the chart below to make it bigger.)

ESSA cliff

Pre-ESSA, these numbers varied wildly state-to-state. Some states had extremely high percentages of schools identified for improvement, while others set much lower bars. But these numbers offer the best explanation for why Washington Democratic Senator Patty Murray would champion a bill with such low expectations for schools. Murray cited it as a key reason for her support, and indeed it’s not hard to see why: Her state was on a rollercoaster ride. Out of 2,400 schools statewide, the state identified 552 schools for improvement in 2011-12. Washington received a waiver in 2012 and the number fell to just 137. But when Washington subsequently lost its waiver, it fell back onto the NCLB expectations ramp, and the number of schools identified rose all the way to 1,385 schools. It will stay at that level until ESSA is full implemented in 2017-18, when it will fall all the way down to just 46 schools (5 percent of its Title I schools).

No one knows exactly how Washington or other states will implement ESSA, and they could decide to identify far more schools than they’re required to. But based on what we saw from states under waivers, where states pretty much just met the minimum requirement, the ESSA floor will likely serve as a powerful anchoring mechanism.

Update: I’ve had several questions about whether any of this matters–do schools respond in productive ways to the threat of identification? The answer is yes, there’s evidence from North Carolina that the threat of being identified for improvement did spur schools to respond in ways that increased student learning. There’s also a broader research literature suggesting that accountability with consequences will spur greater changes than simple transparency. See pages 9-11 here for a longer discussion of this question.

School Accountability Before, During, and After NCLB

With NCLB reauthorization taking another step forward today, I’m again hearing the refrain that states won’t back away from school accountability when they’re not forced to by the feds. “We’re in a new era,” I’m told, and states are going to lead the way forward. I hope this is true, and this is certainly the theory of action behind the current reauthorization proposal, but historical precedent runs against it. Here are just a few examples from NCLB:

  • Annual testing: Prior to NCLB, nearly every state required some test in reading and math, but they weren’t given annually and many were norm-referenced, meaning they compared students against their peers rather than holding all students to the same standard. As of 2002, only 9 states required all students in grades 3-8 to take a criterion-referenced test in English Language Arts. Only 7 did so in math. Only 14 states required any test in ELA in grades 3-8, and only 10 did so in math. These figures come from a 2002 CCSSO report tracking state education policies.
  • Accountability systems: States began implementing school accountability systems in the early 1990s, but by the time of NCLB’s enactment in 2002 just 29 states had adopted some form of consequential accountability system. Another 14 relied on transparency alone, and the remaining 7 states did nothing. (For more details on the timeline and why consequential accountability matters, see here).
  • Disaggregation: States may have been testing or holding schools accountable, but a 2000 GAO report found they generally weren’t looking at the performance of particular groups of students. 10 states failed to disaggregate results for students with disabilities, 11 didn’t do so by race, 12 didn’t track students with Limited English Proficiency, and 24 states didn’t disaggregate by income. Only 17 states disaggregated by ALL these groups. (See Figure 5).
  • Other measures: The same GAO report also showed that states were slow to enhance their accountability systems with other measures beyond test scores. As of 2000, only 22 states disaggregated graduation rates (graduation rates!) by high school.

NCLB forced states to improve on all these measures. And while people routinely laud NCLB for that fact, those same people often assert that federal authority can’t do anything worthwhile. It can, and it did.

This same pattern has continued to play out since NCLB as well. Federal nudges keep prodding states along in ways that are good for the country. Practically no state was using a growth model to hold schools accountable for the progress students made each year rather than just their final proficiency rates until the Bush Administration specifically invited states to participate in a pilot program. Only a few states had the technical capacity to do so, but within a few years of the pilot program, 15 states did. That progress stalled after the Obama Administration failed to promote or improve the pilot. When the Obama Administration offered states an opportunity to re-think their accountability systems as part of its waiver initiative (which I worked on at the Department of Education), some states took up the offer and did come up with creative new ideas. But many states failed to take up the mantle and use the opportunity to really rethink their accountability systems.

I’m afraid this is what we’ll see more of when the federal government stops pushing states forward. We’ll continue to see some high-flying states doing really creative, good things for students. But we’ll see a lot more just kind of getting by and doing the bare minimum, particularly when local politics and inertia prevent state leaders from pursuing bold changes on behalf of disadvantaged students. I hope I’m wrong, but history suggests I’m right.

To My Friend Mike Petrilli: Please Stop Confusing the ESEA Debate

The Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli has a new post attempting to explain why the Right and Left should come together to support the Every Child Achieves Act, the Senate’s current proposal to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act. His reasons why liberals should support the bill are, shall we say, out of touch:

Civil rights groups and others should welcome its maintenance of annual testing; its continuing emphasis on the collection and dissemination of student achievement data disaggregated by key subgroups; and its requirement that states and districts take action to deal with chronically failing schools.

Get that? He gives liberals like me three reasons to support the bill. The first is annual testing, which, yes, I do support annual testing in English and math, but so did conservatives like Mike not that long ago. Heck, back in 2011 when the Fordham Institute still believed in “reform realism,” it took annual testing for granted and even went so far as to call for the feds to mandate all states measure student growth. (Needless to say, Mike is no longer calling for student growth, and appears fine with the bill’s quiet demurral to NCLB-era measures of school performance.)

His second justification to support the current bill is that it includes the same transparency requirements as NCLB. That’s good, but again, it’s not a liberal position. Transparency and transparency alone was Fordham’s position back in 2011. Nothing’s changed for Mike, except that now he’s trying to convince us that it’s a “win” for the Left. (And he willfully ignores the research suggesting that transparency alone is not a sufficient accountability mechanism.)

His third justification is that states and districts must take action in response to low-performing schools. This is technically true; the bill does require each state to:

describe…the State educational agency’s system to monitor and evaluate the intervention and support strategies implemented by local educational agencies in schools identified as in need of intervention and support… including the lowest-performing schools… and the steps the State will take to further assist local educational agencies, if such strategies are not effective.

But the bill sets no parameters on how states identify low-performing schools (assuming they choose to identify any at all!) or on what states must do in those circumstances. Worse, the bill actively limits the federal government’s power to ensure that states are doing something meaningful with billions of dollars in federal investments (like this). If Mike thinks blanket promises from states are sufficient for civil rights advocates or liberals like myself, he should go out and talk to more liberals and civil rights advocates.

Skunk at the ESEA Garden Party?

Last week the Senate HELP Committee approved a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by a vote of 22-0. As others have noted, Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray deserve plaudits for shepherding the bipartisan agreement through the committee with a politically diverse coalition that spans from Republican Rand Paul to Democrat Elizabeth Warren. To get them to agree on anything is notable, let alone a complex piece of legislation like this one.

And yet, for all the backslaps and justifiable compliments for the two senators leading the charge, I felt like the skunk at a garden party.  Continue reading

A Wonky But Important Argument for Annual Statewide Testing

In Saturday’s New York Times, I wrote a defense of annual statewide testing in reading and math. In the piece, I used data from the District of Columbia to illustrate that withdrawing from annual statewide testing would make it nearly impossible to hold schools accountable for the performance of specific groups of students. That’s a problem, because NCLB’s emphasis on historically disadvantaged groups forced schools to pay attention to these groups and led to real achievement gains. Today, 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores for black, Hispanic, and low-income students have never been higher.

To see how a move away from annual testing would affect subgroup accountability in other cities, I pulled data from Providence, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia. The results confirm that a move away from annual testing would leave many subgroups and more than 1 million students functionally “invisible” to state accountability systems.  Continue reading