Last week, after a seven-year delay, Congress overwhelmingly voted, and the president signed, to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dubbed No Child Left Behind in 2002, and now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This new law fixes some problems but creates others, especially for children who struggle the most.
The new law ends the NCLB requirement that states look almost exclusively at test scores to determine whether and how to reward or sanction schools, and also ends the Race To The Top requirement that states use tests that are linked to the Common Core State Standards in order to evaluate and reward or punish not only students and schools, but also teachers. This is good news, because the research clearly shows how an obsession with raising test scores leads to “teaching to the test,” narrowing and dumbing-down what we teach, especially for struggling students who are in most need of a richer and more rigorous curriculum. Assessment experts have long argued that using test scores for such decision making lacks validity and reliability, and we should stop doing so.
But we are not, and the bad news is that this new law still presumes that testing is the magic bullet. Students will continue to be tested annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, and those test scores must figure prominently in how states evaluate school performance. Advocates of the new law celebrate the shifting of authority from the feds to the states to determine what the tests will consist of, how those scores will factor into the evaluations, and what rewards or sanctions will follow. But without a sound framework to guide this work, there is no evidence that the states will come up with strategies better than before.
We should remember that this law initially passed in 1965, in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, as a way to leverage federal funding in order to push states to better serve those students and communities who were being failed by our schools. This is one reason why many of the national civil rights groups have expressed deep concerns about ESSA and the weakening of the federal government in its ability to advocate for the students who struggle the most.
There are additional provisions that will shrink the capacity of public schools to educate all children.
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First, vast amounts of funding will divert from neighborhood public schools to private, religious, and charter schools. States will be required to set aside funding to support students in private and religious schools, while the federal government will spend hundreds of millions annually to support charter school expansion. Thomas Jefferson put forth a vision and a hope that every child would be able to walk to his or her neighborhood school and receive the best education that our nation has to offer. The neighborhood schools are the ones serving the largest number of struggling and high-needs students, but because the new law does not increase the overall pot of money, this diversion of funds leaves a smaller pool to support them.
Second, schools with the highest needs will have more teachers with the least preparation. The new law requires that states open more pathways for individuals to become certified to teach in public schools without the level of education, training, and mentoring that comes with the more comprehensive university-based teacher preparation. The high-needs schools are disproportionately impacted by this provision, because teachers who come through these alternative and fast-track certification programs are overwhelming hired there. High-needs schools and students need the best teachers that our nation has to offer, and to get there, we should be creating pathways with more and better preparation, not less.
Third, parents will have less voice and ability to advocate for their children. In this past year alone, over half a million students across the country walked out of or boycotted the tests that they rightly understood to be invalid for decision-making and harmful to their own education and well-being (because such tests take up a large amount of time, resources, and emotional toll). But the new law requires that at least 95% of their students take the tests or risk losing Title I funding, which again means that the law disproportionately impacts the students and communities with highest need, while continuing to profit the multi-billion-dollar testing industry.
The silver lining is that this law is scheduled for reauthorization in four years, not the typical seven. Let’s use that time to craft a framework that will truly support every student’s success and a public school system that embodies the promises of our nation.