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A Blog from New America's Federal Education Budget Project

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Yesterday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, released yet another attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind: the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013 (SASA). NCLB, due for a Congressional rewrite since 2007, has few remaining fans. But all previous reauthorization bills, including a bipartisan effort from Sen. Harkin and Mike Enzi (R-WY) last Congress, have failed miserably. While every Democratic Senator on the Committee signed off on the new draft legislation, Harkin could not sway key Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Ranking Member on the Committee, plans to offer his own reauthorization legislation later this week, with partisan bills also expected from the House Education and Workforce Committee later this month.

Given the partisan nature of the Harkin bill and Congress in general, the odds for a successful reauthorization are more dismal than ever. Insiders agree: the latest Whiteboard Advisors tracking survey found that 87 percent of edu-insiders believe reauthorization will occur after January 2015. Add 37 states and Washington, D.C. with NCLB waivers into the mix, and there is little real pressure from the administration or from state and local policymakers to rewrite the law – especially a bill that would increase the role of the federal government and take away some of the flexibility states received in their waiver plans (more on that below).

Harkin’s bill is scheduled for a Committee markup next Tuesday. In the meantime, here are some of the key provisions we’re watching within Title I – the bill’s largest program – as well as areas for excitement and concern. Education Week, New York Times, and Huffington Post also offer excellent recaps of the proposed legislation.

Timeline and Interaction with NCLB Waivers

States, regardless of waiver status, must immediately begin implementing college- and career-ready assessments and reporting disaggregated student achievement data for any subgroup larger than 16 students. Otherwise, there is a two-year transition period to establish a baseline for performance targets and to identify schools for improvement based on the accountability provisions in SASA. This is a no-brainer: any reauthorization at this point cannot dismantle states’ NCLB flexibility overnight.

What’s far more interesting, however, is that Sen. Harkin is borrowing some ideas from the Department when it comes to waivers. Under SASA, state Title I plans become the new NCLB waivers – subject to Department-approval, including peer review, every four years. Any significant changes to standards, assessments, performance targets, or accountability would fall under the review and revision process. 

What’s brilliant (and quite welcome for education policy wonks) is that this provision eliminates the possibility that the next federal education law gets trapped in reauthorization limbo like NCLB. And it gives Congress more oversight over the renewal/waiver process, since it’s authorized explicitly in the law. Another welcome provision is that the bill requires states’ plans to include how they are improving access to full-day kindergarten if they fund it and to report the distribution of effective teachers – data currently unavailable to most parents, researchers, and policymakers.

Academic Standards

Under SASA, states would have to adopt college- and career-ready academic content standards in reading, math, and science by January 2015. States would also need to adopt achievement standards in all three subjects and, unlike previous bills, demonstrate that they are aligned with credit-bearing academic coursework, without need for remediation, in the state’s public colleges and universities. Without alignment to actual postsecondary standards, states’ new K-12 standards would be college- and career-ready in name-only. While the draft bill could go further, this is a move in the right direction.

The proposed legislation also weighs in on the growing backlash to the Common Core standards. SASA reiterates that the Department of Education cannot “mandate, direct, or control a State’s college and career ready academic content.” Finally, Sen. Harkin would require any state that uses Title I funds for early childhood education to develop early learning guidelines for preschool programs and early grade standards for students in grades K-3. These standards would be required to address multiple domains of learning, including social-emotional development and approaches to learning (ability to persist at a challenging task, work with others, make decisions) and align with the state’s college- and career-ready standards. While this could help encourage states to address the specific needs of its youngest students and how they learn best, it should be a requirement for all states, though, and not just those who use their Title I dollars for preschool programs.

Assessments

Not a lot has changed as far as the NCLB testing schedule, but SASA would require states to administer college- and career-ready assessments by the 2015-16 school year – with assessments subject to a technical review by the Department. This provision has big implications for both the Common Core consortia and other competitors, like ACT. And Bellwether’s Andy Smarick recently revealed that the Department is also revising its review process, so this issue will emerge regardless of an NCLB reauthorization.

Another big change in the Harkin bill is that assessments must measure whether students are performing on grade level, as well as identify the specific grade level at which the student is performing. In other words, states would be allowed to administer computer-adaptive tests that adjust to students’ abilities, using items at the 4th or 5th grade level for advanced 3rd grade students and simpler items aligned to 1st or 2nd grade standards for those that are below-grade level. By allowing states to accurately measure students’ abilities, teachers would have much better information to help students improve and stay on target to postsecondary readiness. Given the importance of grade-level reading and a growing number of states that retain students based on it, this provision is sorely needed.

School Accountability

Like the administration’s NCLB waivers, Harkin’s proposal for accountability includes aggregate and disaggregated measures of student achievement and growth and establishes annual targets for school performance. But unlike the waivers, SASA defines what sufficient academic growth is: a rate of growth by which students would be performing at grade level within three years or by the end of a grade span (like high school). Given that some states’ waivers include growth models that don’t actually measure individual student growth, a better definition is overdue. However, states would also be allowed to submit alternative growth models to the Department for approval, so any sub-par models in the waivers could, theoretically, still be used.

Annual targets can also be carried over from states’ NCLB waivers or approved by the Department anew. States on the latter track would set goals, based on 2014-15 data, which aim for all schools to be performing similarly to schools at the 90th percentile over a “reasonable” amount of time and expect greater progress for lower-performing subgroups. Alternatively, these states could submit an “equally ambitious” set of goals for Department approval. On their face, these targets sound even more rigorous than those in states’ waivers. However, it’s hard to judge how difficult these targets would be without greater clarity on what, exactly, “reasonable” and “equally ambitious” mean. Notably, states’ goals cannot recognize a GED or other equivalency as a high school diploma, and super-subgroups would be eliminated in any new goals states develop.

But the most important – and welcome – change between SASA and states' waivers is that these targets actually matter beyond school report cards. As research shows, serious interventions – or the threat of them – could be the difference between schools improving or stagnating. Harkin’s bill would require state accountability systems to identify and intervene in focus and priority schools, along with schools failing to meet the same performance goals for two consecutive years. The Harkin bill is also more explicit about what happens to focus and priority schools if they do not improve than most state waivers: focus schools become priority schools after six years, while priority schools are subject to state takeover, restart, or closure if they are re-identified as a priority school after three years.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sen. Harkin’s bill suffers in two areas: defining school improvement strategies and school report cards. In defining what schools must do to improve and what school data must be reported to parents, every Democratic Senator’s favored approach or data point appears to be included, leaving a jumbled mess of burdens and requirements for states, districts, and schools.

School improvement strategies – in addition to the specific provisions of the transformation, turnaround, whole school reform, restart, and closure models – must include over 15 common elements, from professional development, to improving coordination and access to early learning, to data-driven instruction, to positive behavioral interventions and supports. While these are all important factors to consider (and New America has written about the need to include preschool and the early grades in school turnaround), it’s a vague and inordinately long list to tackle in three years, especially if state and district capacity for school improvement is lacking.

SASA’s treatment of school report cards is even worse. After stating that school report cards must be “concise” and “easy to understand,” the draft bill includes over twenty data points that must be reported for all schools (NCLB required less than five). But there are actually far more than twenty – it could be hundreds. That is because nearly every data point must be reported by grade and all must be disaggregated by subgroup, and then cross-tabulated between subgroups. This data should be publically available. But does it all need to be reported in one place, where it could easily overwhelm parents and families? Ironically, despite all the data that must be included, there are still missing pieces – particularly enrollment in full-day and half-day kindergarten and chronic absenteeism.

There is a lot more (believe it or not) in the legislation, so New America will continue to cover the Strengthening America’s Schools Act on and the markup on Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

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