Holding States and Schools Accountable

Published on February 9, 2013
by The New York Times in K-12 Education, Data-Driven Improvement, ESEA / No Child Left Behind, Testing and Assessment

Excerpt from Motoko Rich's article.

As Congress contemplates rewriting No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, legislators will tussle over a vision of how the federal government should hold states and schools accountable for students’ academic progress.

At a Senate education committee hearing on Thursday to discusswaivers to states on some provisions of the law, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, forcefully urged the federal government to get out of the way.

“We only give you 10 percent of your money,” said Mr. Alexander, pressing John B. King Jr., the education commissioner for New York State. “Why do I have to come from the mountains of Tennessee to tell New York that’s good for you?”

Dr. King argued that the federal government needed to set “a few clear, bright-line parameters” to protect students, especially vulnerable groups among the poor, minorities and the disabled.

“It’s important to set the right floor around accountability,” Dr. King said.

Despite repeated efforts over the last five years, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Act, the law that governs all public schools that receive federal financing. The No Child version, passed in 2001, provoked controversy by holding schools responsible for student performance on standardized tests, dubbing schools that do not meet targets failures and requiring strict interventions like the replacement of a school’s entire teaching staff.

Since early last year, the Obama administration has granted waivers to 34 states and the District of Columbia, relieving them from what many argued was the law’s most unrealistic goal: making all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. In exchange, the administration has demanded that the states raise curriculum standards and develop rigorous teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance on standardized tests.

Critics have argued that the Obama administration has been too prescriptive in these waiver requirements, and that a new education law should leave most decisions about schooling up to states and districts.

Dictating education policy from Washington can engender unintended consequences. At the Senate hearing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that 19 states had “dummied down standards” under the No Child Left Behind law. Critics also say the law has compelled educators to teach to the tests and set off a spate of cheating scandals.

In addition, huge gaps remain between the performance of poor and minority children and more affluent and white children. And while some states have raised scores on reading and math tests, others have shown little progress.

“Even with the rigor of No Child Left Behind, the difference in improvement by the states is vast,” said John E. Chubb, the interim chief executive of Education Sector, a nonpartisan policy group. “The federal government has not found the right tools as yet.”

In one respect, the Obama administration’s waivers have actually loosened federal pressure by allowing schools to show that students are improving over time rather than requiring that they all hit an absolute benchmark...