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Draft Bill Heats Up NCLB-Renewal Debate

By David J. Hoff — August 31, 2007 5 min read
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The release this week of a preliminary proposal for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act starts a busy fall in Congress, as both the House and the Senate try to revamp the NCLB accountability system and ramp up efforts to improve struggling schools.

Lobbyists and advocates spent the last week of the August congressional recess reading through the 435-page draft bill that outlines key House members’ plans to change the accountability system by measuring students’ academic growth and adding other indicators to those in reading and mathematics.

Most education groups reacted cautiously to the draft as they considered the impact of changes proposed in the House Education and Labor Committee document, which committee leaders called a “work in progress” in an open letter to “education stakeholders” .

BRIC ARCHIVE

“The committee has not endorsed this staff discussion draft,” wrote the panel’s chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and his colleagues. “However, we believe it represents a starting point from which to receive input.”

The ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, also signed the Aug. 27 letter, as did the chairman and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.

On the Senate side, lawmakers worked on an NCLB bill throughout the August recess and are aiming to have their bill win the Senate’s approval by the end of the year, said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

Potential ‘Loopholes’

The House committee’s draft legislation, released Aug. 28, would add some new features to the 5½-year old law, while keeping many of its central tenets. It would not change the requirement that states assess students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. And it would authorize all states to use a method known as growth models to track progress toward the law’s central goal that all student score as proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Many of the so-called stakeholders had not thoroughly read the draft this week and said they did not want to take firm stands on the complex changes proposed in the plan, which covers only one section of the law’s Title I program.

Title I, which aims to bolster the education of disadvantaged children, dates back to the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. No Child Left Behind, signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, is the latest version of the ESEA.

“We are encouraged the … draft keeps the core principles of No Child Left Behind and includes several of the president’s proposals,” said Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

“However,” Ms. Yudof added in an e-mail statement, “we have serious concerns that the draft … creates loopholes in accountability measures, provides fewer options for parents, increases complexity, and provides less transparency.”

While she did not spell out those perceived loopholes, other supporters of the law pointed to the draft bill’s endorsement of what are known as multiple indicators for the NCLB accountability system, which is aimed at spurring academic gains in the nation’s public schools.

Draft Bill: Changes to AYP

Growth models: States could measure growth in individual student achievement over time instead of comparing cohorts of students. All student subgroups would have to be proficient in math and reading by the original law’s 2013-14 deadline or else be “on a trajectory” to reach proficiency within three years.

Multiple measures: States could use indicators besides their math and reading tests for accountability, including graduation, dropout, and college-going rates; percentages of students successfully completing endof- course exams for college-prep courses; and assessments in government, history, science, and writing.

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Under the draft, states could choose to use a variety of data to supplement their statewide tests, which currently are the most important factor in determining whether schools and districts make adequately yearly progress, or AYP, a key measure of success under the law. Those indicators could include scores on states’ tests in subjects other than reading and math, as well as on graduation and college-enrollment rates.

If schools or districts met certain goals on such indicators, they could earn percentage points to add to their test-score results, according to a summary of the draft.

The changes also “would be confusing and reverse the federal commitment to ensuring all students can competently read and do math,” Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that works to improve the education of poor and minority children, said in a statement.

Enough Flexibility?

While staunch supporters of the NCLB law voiced their concerns, education groups that are seeking more flexibility in the law were circumspect as they studied the draft this week.

“There appears to be more flexibility in it, but we’re still going through the details,” said Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, which has proposed major changes to the law that would give more discretion to local policymakers to make accountability decisions and intervene in schools.

“On the positive side, there’s clearly an effort to address a number of important issues,” said Scott R. Palmer, the director of the education practice at the Washington office of the Holland & Knight law firm, which represents the Council of Chief State School Officers and several other education groups. “On the negative side, it reads in the portions we have now to be very prescriptive. … It’s tremendously important that [educators have] room for judgment and room for innovation.”

The draft bill would significantly change the interventions for schools that fail to make AYP by establishing a two-tiered system of identifying and intervening in such schools.

In such an intervention, state and local officials would choose from a menu of options. In what the draft calls “high-priority schools”—those that missed AYP goals for all or nearly all subgroups of students—officials would need to choose at least four such options, which include adoption of instructional programs with proven success, expansion of parental options for tutoring, and extension of learning time.

Schools that miss AYP goals in one or two subgroups would be called “priority schools” under the draft, and would be required to select fewer interventions to implement.

Clock Ticking

Now that Rep. Miller and his colleagues have sketched out their ideas for the reauthorization, they plan to move on the bill quickly.

They set a Sept. 5 deadline for comments on the draft to be submitted—just over a week after the plan was released. Rep. Miller has scheduled a Sept. 10 hearing by the House education committee, with the possibility that the panel will pass a reauthorization bill by the end of next month.

That appears to be an ambitious schedule for a bill as large and complex as the NCLB law.

“Any renewal would be tough” to do that quickly, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, and a former aide to Democrats on the House education panel. “Not just this bill.”

But the current effort to collect comments on the draft bill’s language may make it easier for it to move through the legislative process, Mr. Jennings said, because all advocates will have had the chance to review the bill and to attempt to influence it.

“We’ll see where it goes, but he’s starting from a strong position,” Mr. Jennings said, referring to Chairman Miller. “He’s still going to have a fight at every step of the way.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week

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