States Gear Up for New Federal Law

By Lynn Olson — January 16, 2002 10 min read
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Even before President Bush signed the new federal education act last week, states were getting ready to carry out the law’s requirements and anxiously awaiting guidance on the fine print.

Interviews by Education Week reporters with officials in 45 states suggest that, by and large, state leaders applaud the thrust of the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which mirrors the push in many states for greater accountability and results in education. And the officials, facing recession-hobbled budgets, also welcome the billions of new dollars Congress has appropriated for education—especially the nearly $1 billion to improve reading in the early grades.

But they have a number of questions and concerns. For example, many doubt that states can ensure, as the new law requires, that all teachers be “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach by the 2005-06 school year. They also worry about how much they will have to change their testing and accountability systems, and whether the federal money set aside for that purpose will be enough.

They ask, too, whether students in low-performing schools, particularly in rural areas, will have much access to public school choice, as the law mandates.

William J. Moloney, the Colorado commissioner of education, said the law marks a “profoundly important shift” from a historic focus on input measures in education to “one that is overwhelmingly based on results.” Still, he added: “At the end of the day, it will turn on what we make of this.”

Last week, many state officials were still scratching their heads about precisely what to make of the requirements in the resculpted ESEA, called the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

“I think it’s premature for anybody to think they can read that 1,200-page law and understand it,” said Douglas D. Christensen, the commissioner of education in Nebraska. “It’s very contradictory.”

He said that states will not really know what’s required until the federal Department of Education hammers out the law’s regulations over the coming year. Like many states, Nebraska hopes to participate actively in that process.

Nearly 30 state schools chiefs traveled to Washington last week to meet with senior officials in the Education Department and to celebrate Mr. Bush’s signing of the bill, which took place Jan. 8 in Hamilton, Ohio. (“Amid Heartland Hoopla, Bush Signs the ESEA,” this issue.)

The meeting was billed as the start of a partnership to carry out the law.

“The substance of the meeting was building relationships with the people who are actually going to get this job done,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said at the two-day event.

Susan Zelman, Ohio’s superintendent of public instruction, said federal officials made it clear that “we want to be partners in the process, and I think that’s really key. I think all the chiefs are willing to say that it’s doable.”

During the meeting, Mr. Paige announced that Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok and Susan B. Neuman, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, would lead efforts to implement the act. Department officials also outlined the timeline for the “negotiated rulemaking” process to clarify some major provisions of the law.

Ms. Neuman said those meetings would begin in late February, with the goal of publishing final regulations in the Federal Register by late June. The negotiated rulemaking will focus on standards, assessments, and, perhaps, “adequate yearly progress,” she said, or how states determine the gains schools and districts must make to show acceptable performance.

“That’s where, really, we need the help and clarity,” Ohio’s Ms. Zelman said.

Burden or Opportunity?

One of the most pressing questions for states is how the federal government will interpret the law’s testing provisions.

The act requires statewide reading and mathematics tests each year in grades 3-8 by the 2005-06 school year. The tests must be “aligned” with a state’s content and academic-achievement standards and provide information about how well students are meeting those standards.

An analysis of state testing practices by Education Week found that only nine states currently administer standards-based test in reading and math in every one of those grades. The other states are on a continuum on how far they’ll have to go to meet the new requirements. (“Testing Systems in Most States Not ESEA-Ready,” Jan. 9, 2002.)

Some states, such as Colorado, must add a few tests in a few grades. Others anticipate entirely revamping their testing systems.

In some cases, states have already begun filling gaps in anticipation of the law. Indiana, for instance, is revising its math and English tests in grades 3, 6, 8, and 10. And it has prepared tests for grades 4, 5, and 7, “knowing that this federal legislation was pending,” said Suellen Reed, the superintendent of public instruction.

Michigan leaders are considering augmenting their testing program, perhaps by adding tests that students could take online, providing teachers and students with more immediate feedback to improve instruction.

In Kansas, Assistant Commissioner of Education Alexa Pochowski said, “We’re not looking at this as a burden, but as an opportunity.” The state now tests students in math in grades 4, 7, and 10, and in reading in grades 5, 8, and 11.

“We’re going to use the time to really change the system,” Ms. Pochowski said. “It’s more work, but I think it’s something that we needed to do.”

Some Doubts

Officials in other states were less sanguine. Wisconsin’s testing system is currently out of compliance with the 1994 law. The state is looking at adding tests in some grades and substantially changing tests in others.

“There is federal money available, but we’re not sure how much will be available,” said Anthony S. Evers, the deputy state superintendent. Congress has appropriated $380 million for fiscal 2002 to help states develop and administer their tests, with that amount expected to rise slowly over time.

In addition, Mr. Evers said, Wisconsin is trying to meet school districts’ concerns “that we not overtest.”

“Our districts are really frustrated with the level of testing and what that all means,” he said.

Some states are banking on their ability to use norm-referenced tests or district tests to fill in any gaps, as long as the tests are aligned with state standards. Norm-referenced tests grade students’ performance against that of a national sample of test-takers.

“If not, it would require major changes in state policy and perhaps state statute,” said Rodney R. Watson, an assistant state superintendent in Louisiana. “We could have tremendous backlash, primarily because we are showing a positive trend in terms of student performance.”

Pennsylvania now administers statewide tests only in grades 5, 8, and 11. But Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Charles B. Zogby said a survey of the state’s districts found that at least 70 percent of them give a nationally norm-referenced test in grade 3, 4, 6, or 7.

“Our preliminary reading of the law would say we could meet the 3-to-8 testing requirement with a combination of state and local assessments,” he said.

Keeping Local Control

Maine is also pinning its hopes on a combination of state and local standards-based tests. The state will soon hire a contractor to write test items that districts can use to align their assessments with the state’s testing system.

“We believe we will be able to do it,” said J. Duke Albanese, Maine’s commissioner of education, citing a letter last month from Mr. Paige to Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine. (“Testing Systems in Most States Not ESEA-Ready,” Jan. 9, 2002.)

Iowa officials were concerned that they would not be able to use the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a nationally norm-referenced test, to comply with the law. “But it appears as though we will be able to continue to use it,” said Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa Department of Education. If not, he said, “it’s a 10- or 20-million-dollar problem for us.”

Terry Bergeson, the schools chief in Washington state, said she fears that, in the short term, the demand for new tests will make it harder to ensure high-quality questions, scoring, and delivery of test information. “We’re going to be pushed hard on this,” she said.

Most states also are awaiting guidance on whether their policies for identifying low-performing schools and holding them accountable for results mesh with the new law. The federal education department never reviewed most states’ final accountability plans for their compliance with the previous 1994 reauthorization.

Because Missouri is in the midst of rolling out its own accountability system, said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the state education department, “we are very concerned about, in effect, changing horses in midstream.”

In Louisiana, state officials noted that some of the potential consequences for failing schools under the ESEA, such as replacing the principal and teachers, could exceed the state’s authority.

And in Mississippi, state officials wonder just what it means to bring all students up to the “proficient” level within 12 years, and how that will be determined. “That’s a real bugaboo,” said Richard L. Thompson, the state superintendent of education.

Teacher-Quality Goal

Some state officials seem doubtful, meanwhile, that they can guarantee a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by the 2005-06 school year. But most say that is an admirable goal.

“Will we have a qualified teacher in every classroom by 2005? No, of course not,” said Mr. Moloney of Colorado. “There are [complex] reasons, and those reasons will not be waved away. But it’s the right direction to point in.”

States such as Mississippi, for instance, are already struggling to fill teacher vacancies, especially in rural outposts.

California districts must hire some 300,000 teachers over the next 10 years to keep pace with growing enrollments. In the 1999-2000 school year, California officials estimate, about 15 percent of the state’s teachers did not have all the credentials required to teach.

“You can’t just wave a magic wand and say we need to have more teachers,” said Delaine Eastin, California’s state schools superintendent. “It’s a resource issue.”

Top state educators raise similar concerns about a requirement in the law that paraprofessionals complete at least two years of postsecondary education or meet a rigorous standard of quality.

And while some state officials praise the school choice provisions in the law, others question their practicality, especially for rural areas or one-school districts.

Under the new ESEA, schools that fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years must permit their students to transfer to other, higher-performing schools within a district, with the district providing transportation. After a third year of failure, districts must pay for students in such schools to receive supplemental services, such as private tutoring, chosen by their parents.

“In Wyoming, you can be in school, and there may not be another school for 30 miles in each direction,” said Scott Marion, the state testing director, “so that makes it tough.”

In Kentucky and Texas, where students in low-performing schools already have the option of switching to other public schools, state officials say few families have exercised that option

But in Georgia, said Linda C. Schrenko, the state schools chief there, “our governor and legislature have consistently refused to look at any form of choice or privatization of services. This requirement will force them to consider other options.”

Still others are dubious about the ability of state education departments to monitor the quality of services provided by private and nonprofit tutoring companies. “It moves a state agency into a whole different arena that we may not be equipped to handle,” Mr. Watson of Louisiana said.

Yet despite their concerns, and the raft of unanswered questions, most state education leaders said they see the new law as an opportunity, particularly if it means new resources.

“We’re always going to scream about federal intrusion. That’s the American way, especially in the heartland,” said John Tompkins, Kansas’ state superintendent. But, he added about the law, “it’s the right thing to do for kids.”

Numerous Education Week reporters contributed to this article.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Gear Up for New Federal Law


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