College and Career Readiness

Trading Transparency and Accountability Today for Better Testing Tomorrow

September 23, 2013
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2013-14: the school year all American students, in all public schools, were expected to be proficient in reading and math. It’s finally here. But don’t kid yourself – nobody expects American schools to meet that goal this spring. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA waivers (and waivers of waivers), most won’t have to.

Instead, 41 states, Washington, D.C. and eight California school districts have different goals for student performance. Goals that cut achievement gaps, or delay the universal proficiency deadline, or lead to college and career readiness, or something else. In some states, failing to meet these goals – like failing to make AYP – triggers interventions as a priority or focus school. But in others, there isn’t any meaningful accountability attached to the new targets. Moreover, many states won’t name any new priority or focus schools this year.

While states don’t have a clean record when it comes to gaming accountability systems, that isn’t necessarily what’s happening here. Holding priority and focus lists constant from 2013 to 2014 is a pragmatic decision on states’ parts, because school performance goals aren’t the only thing changing. Across the country, in waiver and non-waiver states alike, students will also be field testing the new Common Core-aligned tests developed by SmarterBalanced and PARCC. And the Department is letting all states apply for additional flexibility so that some students, in some schools, would take the field test and wouldn’t take state standardized tests in at least one subject. In other words, states won’t have to “double test.”

This creates a problem for the continuity of school accountability systems. How can you judge school performance fairly and accurately when the data aren’t comparable between schools? That’s like determining the faster runner when one competitor has hurdles in their lane and the other doesn’t. Further, the field tests aren’t designed to be used for making school accountability determinations, or frankly, measuring student performance. As Tom Kane notes in his incredibly smart take on the issue, the field test is meant to test the validity of individual test items, not produce a valid score for an individual student. Making a trade-off between high-stakes consequences for school accountability and a valid field test seems like a relatively easy choice. Hold accountability determinations steady and continue all current school improvement efforts, but make sure the field test is conducted to the highest possible standard so that the tests are ready for primetime in 2015.

But it isn’t quite that simple. After all, accountability is about more than being labeled a “failing” school or a priority one. Accountability relies first and foremost on transparent, accurate reporting of student achievement data. And this is where the field test creates a much more harmful trade-off. The U.S. Department of Education will still require all students to be assessed in both reading and math, but states will not be required to publicly announce the results for students taking a field test. For the first time in the NCLB era, there will not be achievement data available for a significant number of students and public schools.

This is a big deal. These data (should) inform nearly every decision made in education – for families, for educators, and for policymakers. Should we send our child to the neighborhood school, or try to enroll her in a charter school nearby? How effective was our new 7th grade math curriculum? Did our new professional development program improve teaching quality? Are the interventions in our focus schools working? All of these questions will be much more difficult to answer without student assessment data. Further, as Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman and Andy Smarick write, this compromises efforts to measure student achievement and growth as required in Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, and a host of other Obama education reforms. Yes, states could continue to administer their current tests during the field test, as they have during previous assessment revisions. But many will not. While the Department was clearly trying to appease (or even subtly encourage) states to participate in the field test, would states have really balked at field testing if every student was also given the state assessment?

Giving up a year of meaningful school accountability is a high price for getting better, more rigorous assessments that reflect what truly matters: whether students are ready for college and career. But the Department didn’t just give up meaningful accountability. They’re also giving up public reporting of test results at the same time. Does that make the price too high?

While it’s too late to reverse the Department’s decision, states participating in the field test should take a prudent and limited approach to it. Let field tests be field tests. They weren’t designed to be used as measures of individual student achievement or school performance. And the more students and schools participating in field testing, the larger the effect on transparency and accountability will be. Unfortunately, a few states – most notably California – are already gearing up to scrap their state assessments entirely this year and only administer the field test.

2014 was never going to be the year we saw universal proficiency. Unfortunately, it could shape up to be the year we see universal missing data. Let’s hope other states don’t follow California’s lead.

Enhancing GED Instruction to Prepare Students for College and Careers

July 29, 2013

Nearly 40 million adults in the United States lack a high school diploma or GED.  Although employment and economic outcomes for individuals with only a high school diploma are poor, the outcomes for those with only a GED are worse. Such poor results for GED recipients have led some to redesign their GED programs in hopes of better outcomes.   A new report from MDRC reports the findings from a recent random assignment study of a redesigned GED program at LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York. The report shows the impact of LaGuardia Community College’s GED Bridge to Health and Business program, an initiative designed to prepare students to pass the GED exam and encourage them to continue on to college and training programs. Initial results show that students enrolled in the Bridge program were more likely to complete the GED prep course, more likely to pass the GED exam, and more likely to enroll in college than students enrolled in a traditional GED prep program.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • 68% of Bridge students completed the GED preparation course, compared to 47% of students in the traditional GED prep program.
  • Bridge students were twice as likely to pass the GED exam as students in the traditional program (52.8% compared to 22.4%).
  • Bridge students enrolled in college at much higher rates than students in the traditional GED prep program.
    • 24.7% of Bridge students enrolled in a CUNY community college compared to 7.2% of GED prep students.
    • Additionally, Bridge students persisted at higher rates; 12% continued into the second semester while only 3% of GED prep students returned for another semester.
  • The report’s authors attribute the positive outcomes of  success of the Bridge program to key design features of the Bridge program:
    • An original curriculum that emphasizes concepts from the fields of business and health care, relates to students’ aspirations, and helps them work through real-life problems.
    • Individual and group advising and full time master’s-level educators who made themselves available outside of class time.
    • Additional in-class hours to prepare for the exam and receive personal attention from instructors.
    • In-depth transition advising helps students make a plan for a college or career program and stay on top of assignments and deadlines. 

Aspirations Versus Assets in Children's Savings Accounts

July 15, 2013
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This post originally appeared on our sister blog, Higher Ed Watch.

This morning, our colleagues in the Assets Building Program at New America hosted an event around the release of Building Expectations, Delivering Results--a comprehensive bi-annual report that lays out the state of reserach around college savings accounts and presents interesting ideas around how these instruments could be used to help lower-income students. (You can read the whole report and see nice graphical representations of some of the findings at and go here to watch the video of the event.) It was an engaging conversation around what research already tells us about accounts, as well as where we still have some tough questions to answer. I particularly recommend listening to Dana Goldstein's discussion of talking to two students who made differing use of accounts and how it framed their behavior, as well as William Elliott's challenging assumptions around whether low income families can actually save or not. 

Our Assets Building colleagues also kindly invited me to participate on the panel, where I talked about how the structure for accounts would differ a lot from a government perspective based upon whether or not you wanted to maximize asset accumulation or drive increased expectations. I also laid out an idea for how better leveraging state funds through an account-like structure could be a promising way to achieve the latter goal. I've posted my remarks after the jump, but I highly recommend giving the report a read.

Prepared remarks for the event

It strikes me that the discussion around accounts focuses on two big benefits: (1) as a tool to help build aspirations so students are better prepared for college and (2) as a way to accumulate assets to help cover costs.

But those two goals are actually quite different and accounts designed to achieve each of them would not look the same. I’d argue that creative use of the account structure would be very effective at building aspirations, but actually seeding them with Federal dollars entails some very significant policy hurdles.

So I wanted to take a couple of minutes to discuss some of the difficulties that would apply in actually tapping into Federal dollars to fund accounts and then suggest an alternative way to consider the account structure that could help with the aspirational goals.

There are three big impediments to a Federal-based account system: cost, infrastructure, and conditions.

Cost is probably the biggest impediment because the largest source of higher ed support for postsecondary education, Pell Grants, are mostly funded through the discretionary process. That means that each year Congress has to come up with sufficient funds to cover the majority of the program’s cost.

What this means is that if you spend Federal dollars today that a kid would otherwise have gotten in the future, you don’t get credit for reduced future spending. It’s treated as a cost. And seeding accounts for millions of kids throughout their elementary and secondary education would probably add billions in additional spending that woudl have to compete with finding dollars to close significant shortfalls in the Pell Grant program over over the coming years.  

The next consideration would be infrastructure. The Pell Grant program also provides cash benefits to students, but as a just-in-time voucher when they go to college. But running that program is streamlined because the Federal government relies upon 7,500 middlemen in the form of colleges and universities to actually award the funds, make sure they are properly accounted for, etc. 

So a Federal-based account system would require either finding a way to set up accounts with millions of kids on an individual basis or you’d need to find ways to encourage states or someone else to set up their own structures to work with. That’s achievable, but would be very complicated to do.

Finally, Federal dollars come with more strings attached than a marionette. When I was at the Department of Education we worked to set up a savings account demonstration project through GEAR UP, which is a college access program that works with students in middle and high school. But for that structure to work with federal dollars required a series of complicated rules, such as having federal funds be properly maintained in their own separate account, limiting their investment into essentially riskless government assets, not to mention lots of restrictions around withdrawals and oversight. I think these challenges were among the main reasons why no one ultimately applied for the project.

But let’s say instead of being focused on an actual cash transfer, you wanted to optimize accounts to build students’ aspirations and behavior. If that’s your goal, then you could modify what some states are already doing to include accounts and avoid a lot of the challenges I just discussed.

The emphasis here would be less on moving actual dollars and more on having students understand the path that it takes to get to college and telling them about available college resources sooner.

This would be based on what’s known as “promise programs,” which a few states and localities are experimenting with. In these programs, the state signs agreements with low-income middle school students where in exchange for free tuition students agree to do things like take a college prep curriculum maintain a reasonable GPA—like a 2.0—fill out the FAFSA and apply to colleges.

But those programs don’t give students an intermediate sense of building to their goals—you either get the benefit at the end of four years or you don’t.

This is where accounts could help improve these programs. Rather than waiting until the end of four years to receive either all or none of the benefit, states could reward intermediate progress toward the goals by giving students “shares” of a college education. Such a structure strongly indicates how striving and doing well in earlier grades really is directly related to the end goal of college. And could include benefits for major benchmarks on the way to college--such as passing Algebra II.

This structure would be easier to set up, since states could control the details and make use of the funds they already put toward financial aid (especially so-called merit aid) and operating subsidies to cover the costs. You could even leverage the ill-targeted Federal education tax benefits if you were looking for some extra cash to encourage states to act.

Adding a Pell-related role to this structure could also be done through an expansion of existing unused flexibilities. Right now, low-income families find out about Pell eligibility more or less in the spring semester of senior year when they fill out the FAFSA.  But that’s really too late to guide aspirations or deal with college cost anxiety that could shape earlier behavior.

So why not expand an existing authorized but never used demonstration program to guarantee Pell awards for students based upon their eighth grade income? This would send a strong message to kids about a significant source of aid availability without needing to stand up a new system. Extra Pell costs would likely be minimal but could be addressed with a few design tweaks.

Again, it’s about what you see as the most important role for accounts. An account funded by state and federal college “shares” would send strong behavioral signals, but lacks the asset accumulation that comes with seeding actual Federal dollars. But that strategy carries a great degree of complications. And so are you think about design and goals its worth keeping in mind what the end result you are hoping for is and the challenges to getting there.

Update: A New NCLB Reauthorization Cheat Sheet

June 19, 2013

After the partisan markup in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, it is the House of Representatives' turn to debate reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The Student Success Act, offered by Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is set for a markup Wednesday morning in the House Education and Workforce Committee. Accordingly, we’ve updated our Senate markup cheat sheet to provide a comprehensive, side-by-side comparison of current law, the Obama administration’s waiver policy, and the current legislative proposals in the Senate and House. You can download the new cheat sheet here.

Here are a few of the highlights from the Kline proposal:

  • The Student Success Act would eliminate over 70 programs and consolidate many stand-alone programs (for instance, Title III for English Language Learners) into Title I, with flexibility for states and districts to shift money between them. The bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning states and local school districts would not be penalized for spending less on required education programs.
  • Kline would not require states to adopt college- and career-ready standards, but they would have to maintain academic content standards – and aligned assessments – in reading, math, and science. And the bill includes really specific language, over and above the Alexander proposal, to prohibit the federal government from promoting participation in the Common Core State Standards initiative in any way.
  • The bill, similar to the Alexander proposal, would allow states to design whatever school accountability and improvement systems they want, including setting performance targets (if any). Kline would also clamp down on the Secretary of Education’s authority to offer waivers to states and districts in exchange for external conditions.
  • Kline, however, would be more prescriptive than either Harkin or Alexander in one area: teacher evaluations, with states required not only to develop them, but also to use the results to make personnel decisions.
  • Kline would not allow Title I funding to follow the child to other public or private schools, but there is speculation that a backpack funding provision could be added to the Student Success Act at a later point. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for example, has expressed an interest in some sort of portability provision.

Stay tuned to Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch for continuing coverage of these bills and the markup, as well as any alternative proposal from Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Ranking Member on the House committee. And be sure to follow the markup on Twitter with me, @afhyslop, and my colleagues @LauraBornfreund and @ConorPWilliams

Waivers (of Waivers) Watch: If It Looks Like a Pause, and It Sounds Like a Pause…

June 18, 2013
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Earlier today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in on the question of whether states can delay their timeline for using Common Core assessments in accountability systems for schools and teachers. The tests are set to be fully deployed during the 2014-15 school year, and according to the original policy for offering No Child Left Behind waivers, the results from the assessments would also be used for school accountability and educator evaluations that year (except in states that applied for waivers after August 2012 – see this nifty chart for a full breakdown). Under the new policy, however, states would be able to apply to hold off using the evaluation results for personnel decisions for an extra year – meaning that, in some states, the results from the 2014-15 year would be used to provide feedback and inform professional development only.

The question of whether to “pause” or place a “moratorium” on Common Core implementation has divided education stakeholders. Fifteen organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, support a moratorium on high-stakes accountability (including student promotion and graduation policies, personnel decisions, and school improvement designations) associated with the Common Core. Instead, these groups - the Learning First Alliance - would like to focus all immediate efforts on improving the supports teachers have to adopt the Common Core, including professional development, curriculum, technology infrastructure, and other resources. On the other hand, Chiefs for Change – a group of eleven reform-minded chief state school officers – urged Secretary Duncan to maintain the Common Core implementation timeline, even for high-stakes decisions, noting that states made these commitments years ago and should not backtrack on accountability.

Others took a slightly more measured approach, but still supported a pause on some components of implementation. The Council of Chief State School Officers asked for state flexibility in three areas: school ratings, teacher evaluations, and which assessments to use for accountability during 2013-14. Some states could maintain the rigorous timelines laid out in their waiver plans, while others could choose to slow down on one or all of these components.

And it appears that Secretary Duncan chose to take the CCSSO route, more or less. States could apply – if they want – to delay the most serious consequences for teachers, like decisions to award tenure or dismiss staff, for one year. Additionally, states would have new flexibility for implementing assessments and school accountability systems. They could apply to use either existing state assessments or Common Core field test results for accountability in the 2013-14 school year (to avoid the so-called “double testing” problem).

While Secretary Duncan insisted the new policy is not a “pause” or a “moratorium” on Common Core, it’s hard to distinguish between an “extension” – the language used by the Department – and a “pause.” No matter what you call it, the requirement for waiver states to use evaluations for personnel decisions can be shelved for a year. And there is no question that states have had a lot of time to fully transition to the Common Core – in most cases, over four years, longer than they had to implement all of the components of No Child Left Behind. In the words of Chad Aldeman, “If this isn’t enough time, what would be?” Will opposition to using teacher evaluations for personnel decisions really die down by the time 2016 rolls around? Further, the new policy could create additional confusion in an already confusing waiver process. It says something that the Department has to release a four-page, state-by-state chart just to explain the timeline for implementing the waiver components (still waiting for a state-by-state chart explaining what they’re actually doing – a far more complicated question).

Still, the Secretary’s decision is a fair compromise between the competing advocacy groups’ positions. And I give credit to the Department for one thing: holding firm on the most critical component of accountability, continuous improvement. More so than the punitive consequences, like school closures and teacher dismissals, accountability really serves to provide meaningful and transparent feedback to schools and educators and give them a roadmap to improve. During the transition to college- and career-ready standards, it is imperative for both schools and teachers to be evaluated on their progress and to use information from evaluations to improve the implementation process. If accountability and other incentives for educators are not aligned to the standards, what kind of signal does that send about the value of implementing them well?

So yes, there will be a pause. And members of Congress can now wave binders full of waivers, and then waivers of waivers, during hearings. But at least the Department is not pressing pause on what’s most important: its expectations for higher standards, better assessments, and continuous improvement.

The Reality of College Readiness 2013

June 14, 2013

In a companion report to The Condition of College & Career Readiness, a recent paper from ACT traces enrollment, retention, re-enrollment, and migration patterns of 2011 ACT-tested high school graduates. Since 1983, there has been little change in retention and persistence rates at U.S. colleges and universities. The report seeks to raise awareness that many students do not take a direct path to completion, and in fact, 41% of graduates attended more than one institution, 38% enrolled part time, and over 40% of students transferred during their college experience in 2011.

Among the report’s findings:

  • According to the report, a direct relationship exists between scores on ACT subject tests and retention, persistence, and degree completion.
    • Additionally, students who earn minimum (benchmark) scores in more than one subject area are more likely to enroll in a four-year institution.
  • Between 22 and 43 percent of ACT-tested high-school graduates across the country who enrolled in higher education in 2011 either did not re-enroll or had unverifiable enrollment statuses.
    • In addition, student mobility between colleges indicates a need for policies supporting a seamless transition from institution to institution.
  • Of 2011 ACT-tested high school graduates, most are retained in the state of their original enrollment.
    • Most students who initially enroll in state re-enroll in state for their second year.
    • Most students who enroll out of state re-enroll out of state for their second year.
    • The rates of students who are retained in state and those who enroll and re-enroll out of state for two-year colleges are lower than rates for public four-year colleges.

Syllabus: Week of June 10, 2013

June 14, 2013
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Welcome to the Syllabus, a guide that provides insight into what’s happening in higher education.


Going to College is Worth it – Even if You Drop Out, Dylan Matthews
The Washington Post

There was a time when high school was rare and college was reserved for the elite. In today’s world, the value of education is vastly different. Some sort of postsecondary education is an expectation for most. It seems that one must attend and graduate college for entrée into the middle class. Due to stagnating wages and rising college prices, however, many have questioned whether attending college is a financially sound decision. According to researchers at The Hamilton Project the answer is “yes.” Their recent study shows that only 58 percent of college students enrolled in 2004 received a degree by 2010. Nevertheless, those students who did not graduate still earned more income than those who never enrolled in college. In addition, college dropouts make $8,000 more than high school graduates. This figure includes factoring in the cost of the student’s additional education. Matthews concludes by stating, “Dropping out of college is unquestionably a worse economic bet than finishing it. But the evidence suggests that starting and not finishing is much better than never starting at all.”


Are There Jobs Out There for Recent Grads?
NPR Tell Me More

One of the biggest concerns for recent college graduates is whether or not they will obtain a fair paying job after spending countless hours and thousands of dollars on higher education. Recent numbers indicate 175,000 new jobs were obtained last month. However, the number of unemployed individuals increased by 7.6 percent. This is because more people entered the labor force. If you’re a recent college grad, you’re still in better shape than those who do not hold a college degree. Surveys show that the salaries of offers for new graduates are up about 5 percent. Additionally, college grads have an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent as compared with high school dropouts who have an unemployment rate of over 11 percent.


Minn. Program Will Offer a Tuition Break Based on Scores on a Standardized Test, Dan Berrett
The Chronicle of Higher Education

In order to motivate students Minnesota State University at Moorhead created a program called “Up2U” that encourages their students to academically achieve and complete college by providing financial incentives through a transfer tuition reduction. In order to receive this deduction the following conditions must be met: 1) The student must enroll full-time in the fall at the college and maintain a GPA of 2.0 for their first four semesters; and 2) During their fourth semester the student will take the new version of the Collegiate Learning Assessment or CLA, which is a standardized test of critical thinking. If students have the same GPA and score well on the assessments they will see their tuition reduced by three-quarters of the full cost. Those opposed to “Up2U” are concerned the program will encourage “teaching to the test” and will alter the current curriculum.

Higher Ed Watch readers, what do you think? Is one test a good predictor of a student’s understanding of the material and critical thinking abilities? Given that the Collegiate Learning Assessment is a test of critical thinking, how could it alter curriculum? Would it even be possible to teach to this test?

Storify: Senate HELP Committee ESEA Markup

June 12, 2013

Harkin, Alexander, and Waivers: Your ESEA Markup Cheat Sheet

June 10, 2013

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will markup the Strengthening America’s Schools Act, the latest ESEA reauthorization proposal from Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ed Money Watch and Early Ed Watch have already recapped many of the changes proposed to accountability for schools and educators, as well as Title I and early learning programs. But we have yet to weigh in on the alternative proposal offered by the Committee’s Republican members, led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

Here are the three biggest differences between the two bills:

1. No love for Common Core. Alexander’s bill – the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act – includes detailed language to explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Education from exercising any direction, preference, or control over state’s academic content standards (like the Common Core State Standards) or achievement standards (i.e. cut scores that determine what it means to be college- and career-ready). This also has big implications for education data and reporting – more on that below.

Clearly concerned with federal overreach, this level of specificity around the Department’s role should appeal to critics of the common standards, claiming they are step one toward a “federal curriculum” or “national school board.” But Alexander is silent on a specific timeline or transition to college- and career-ready standards and tests – another increasingly divisive issue. Harkin’s bill would allow states a one-year “pause,” requiring implementation by the 2015-16 school year, even though both Common Core consortia say they will deliver their assessments on-time in 2014-15.

2. A mini-backpack for Title I funds. Another sharp contrast with the Harkin proposal: states could allocate Title I funds to districts based only on their number of eligible children – and federal funding could then follow the child to any public school in the district. Similar to a Romney campaign proposal (but on a smaller scale, without the option to use Title I funds to attend out-of-district public schools or private schools, or to pay for tutoring), it is unclear how many states would take advantage of this provision. How would it work in districts that lack other public school options – in particular, rural districts or districts where the overwhelming majority of schools are low-performing? Funding fights are always messy – how would school and district administrators respond to the change? The Alexander bill would also eliminate maintenance of effort requirements, meaning that states and districts would not be penalized for spending less on education from year to year, another potential sore spot for local school leaders.

3. States: choose your own accountability adventure. Unlike the Democrats’ bill, Every Child Ready for College or a Career would not require performance targets for schools. As Politics K-12 predicted, this was a major partisan sticking point between Harkin and Alexander. And transparency – rather than accountability – is the key policy lever in the Republican proposal. States can choose to differentiate between schools as they see fit.

Further, the Senate Republican proposal would prohibit the Department from specifying, defining, or prescribing any measure that states include in their accountability systems. Presumably, this means states could choose how they want to define everything from adequate student growth, to a cut score for college and career readiness, to how they define graduation rates. Would this undermine data comparability between states, including efforts to report a uniform graduation rate?

Alexander’s bill also doesn’t require states to identify any set percentage of Title I schools for improvement, leaving both identification and intervention entirely up to states (with the exception that students be allowed to transfer if their schools are identified). Given states’ history with setting rigorous goals and expectations for schools (as this new Education Sector report reminds us), Alexander’s bill would effectively set federal education policy back twenty years – to the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act.

Finally, Alexander’s bill would not require states to develop teacher or principal evaluation systems, but they could use Title II funds for these purposes. And unlike Harkin’s proposal, states could partner with for-profits, as well as nonprofit organizations or higher education institutions, to implement their plans for preparing, training and improving the quality of teachers and school leaders. Because the bill also eliminates the “highly qualified teacher” provision, states would not have to report, whether teachers are distributed equitably between Title I and non-Title I schools – another blow for accountability and a big difference between the Alexander and Harkin proposals.

The bottom line? Alexander’s bill doesn’t actually require states to do anything. And that’s a problem. As Chad Aldeman also notes in his smart take on the Alexander bill, Every Child College or Career Ready relies on assurances from states that they will implement rigorous and high-quality standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As Aldeman writes: “There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions.” If a plan is a poor substitute for policy, then an assurance as policymaking is downright laughable.

To help keep both draft bills – along with No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s waiver policy – straight, download this side-by-side cheat sheet to use during the markup. You can click also click on the image below to enlarge it. And of course, the always-helpful Politics K12 team has another side-by-side comparison that features the House Republican plan

Comparing ESEA Reauthorization Proposals

Follow along with us tomorrow, and stay tuned to Ed Money Watch for continuing coverage.

First Look: Sen. Harkin’s Strengthening America’s Schools Act

June 5, 2013
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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.


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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