School & District Management

Superintendents Push Their Vision for Renewed ESEA

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 18, 2014 4 min read
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Saying K-12 educators need an escape from the “holding pattern” caused by the years-long delay in reauthorizing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a group of prominent school leaders has begun a push for members of Congress to embrace its vision for what the next generation of public school accountability ought to be.

Fifteen superintendents who make up the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium wrote a “federal accountability framework” with principles they believe a new version of the ESEA should incorporate.

The group is calling for a big drop in standardized testing and more leeway for states and local districts to set their own academic targets for students—akin to what’s already been happening under the federal No Child Left Behind Act waivers for states. The framework also outlines an expanded definition of what it means to be college- and career-ready, most notably by demonstrating an “ability and fluency in more than one language,” and possessing noncognitive abilities such as perseverance and self-regulation.

The superintendents—in charge of districts such as Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta; U-46 in Elgin, Ill.; and Montgomery County in Maryland—have been working on the document for months and held two meetings with Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

“People in education need this,” said Patrick K. Murphy, the superintendent of the 23,000-student Arlington, Va., district in suburban Washington. “There’s such a void right now, but it’s also an opportunity to help shape the path forward.”

It’s not yet clear how influential the recommendations will be with lawmakers who oversee ESEA reauthorization. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate HELP committee, said only that he would review the proposal.

A Lighter Touch

At the heart of the group’s proposal is the idea that districts such as theirs—described in the document as having records of either exceeding requirements or continuously improving—should be free of federal prescriptions when it comes to setting academic goals, evaluating the performance of students and educators, and using standardized assessments to test every student in certain grade levels. So-called “earned autonomy” from such requirements, however, would not be extended to districts and schools with chronic underperformance.

The superintendents said that a federal focus on equity for students should be preserved in a renewed ESEA, including the disaggregation of academic-performance data by race, ethnicity, and English-language-learner and special education status. They were less clear on how districts and schools should be held accountable for the performance of those subgroups, but said that federal law should “differentiate” between a state’s oversight of high-achieving districts and those that have schools that are persistently low-performing or have big achievement gaps.

These ideas echo much of what is already happening under states’ NCLB waivers and what was proposed in two Senate bills introduced last summer to renew the ESEA. The NCLB act is the law’s current version.

One group of advocates for low-income and minority students said that while it agrees with some larger themes in the superintendents’ proposal—college and career readiness for all students and the need for a more equitable distribution of the most talented teachers—it would quarrel with several elements.

“Their underlying notion that accountability really only ought to apply to the lowest-performing schools we would fundamentally disagree with,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust. “Not all poor students and students of color go to low-performing schools; that’s why you need statewide accountability, both for transparency and for equity.”

Fewer Tests

A major point of departure in the superintendents’ proposal is around assessment. They call for giving major summative assessments to students at the conclusion of elementary, middle, and high school (as opposed to the current reading and math testing requirement for every student in grades 3-8, and once in high school), or, more radically, using results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, to measure how well districts and schools are doing.

Both NAEP and PISA test representative samples of students at different grade levels in different subjects. NAEP tests students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, while PISA is a multination assessment that compares reading, math, and science knowledge among 15-year-olds internationally.

“We want to really push on this notion of random assessments,” said José Torres, the superintendent of the 40,000-student U-46 district in suburban Chicago. “The idea is to be able to give students more opportunity to learn in their classrooms rather than requiring every student at every grade level to spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer bubbling in answers.”

Joshua Starr, the superintendent in the 151,000-student Montgomery County system and a high-profile critic of current assessment policy, said: “If the PISA and the NAEP are seen as a valid and legitimate measure of kids’ skills relative to where they’ve been in the past to where they are now, why can’t those same methodologies be used for the purpose of accountability?”

As for using tests to assess individual students’ progress and inform teachers, administrators, and parents, the schools chiefs said the nature and frequency of those tests should be determined by state and local educators. Similarly, the superintendents’ framework calls for loosening federal requirements on how districts can spend federal funds for teacher professional development and evaluation, especially when those efforts are tied to turning around low-performing schools.

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as Superintendents Push Vision for Next Version of ESEA

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