Governors Enter Fray Over NCLB

By Alyson Klein — April 06, 2007 7 min read

The National Governors Association, which largely took a pass on the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act as it was being crafted six years ago, released recommendations this week for its renewal that aim to preserve the federal role in holding states accountable for student learning, while seeking greater flexibility in several key areas.

Under the recommendations, which were also endorsed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education, states would get greater leeway in how they intervene in schools not meeting annual achievement targets, define highly qualified teachers, and measure the progress of English-language learners.

The NGA, which represents all 50 state governors, decided to weigh in on the reauthorization of the NCLB law in part because, after five years of implementing the measure, its members believed it was “very important for states to have a voice in this,” Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington, a Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters on April 5.

Read the joint statement on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act submitted to Congress by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education. The accompanying letter is also available.

“It’s good for Congress to see this partnership in education” among the governors, the CCSSO, and NASBE, said Ms. Gregoire, a co-leader for the NGA on the federal school law.

“No Child Left Behind in its original authorization has really shone the light on what needs to be done,” Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican and the other co-leader on NCLB issues, said on the call. “But in the process of living with this now for the last several years, there are some things that need to be looked at and tweaked and adjusted.”

But organizations representing local public school officials said the state groups’ recommendations centered too much on minor adjustments to the federal law and missed an opportunity to restore greater state control over education policy.

“It’s completely disappointing to us,” said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents. “It seems strange to me that three state organizations did not harp on the whole federalism issue.”

She said that many superintendents in her organization were concerned that the NCLB law allows the federal government—which provides only about 8 percent of K-12 education funding nationwide—such broad authority in dictating education policy.

Proponents of strong federal measures for educational accountability, particularly for poor and minority students, praised some of the state groups’ proposals, such as the call for supporting greater coordination between precollegiate and higher education, but they said some important matters were noticeably absent.

“There is not enough focus on the equity and distribution of teachers,” said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of low-income students. She worried that some of the recommendations proposing more flexibility for the states could weaken measures already in the law aimed at helping disadvantaged students and racial minorities.

“The devil’s in the details,” she said.

Flexibility for States

Under the law, which overhauled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and was signed by President Bush in January 2002, schools must test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and measure results, both for specific subgroups, such as racial minorities, and for the student population as a whole. The goal is for all students to reach proficiency by the 2013-14 school year.

State Groups’ Views on Reauthorization

The National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education are recommending that Congress implement a number of changes in the No Child Left Behind Act, which is due for renewal this year.

State accountability systems: Permit states to use “growth models” to complement existing measurements.

Rewards and consequences: Allow states to differentiate consequences and penalties for schools that do not make adequate yearly progress under the NCLB law.

Let states offer supplemental educational services before public school choice.

Special populations: Allow states to determine student progress using alternate or modified assessments, based on a student’s individualized education program, for a limited number of students with disabilities.

Provide English-language learners with adequate time to overcome language barriers and use alternate or modified assessments to ensure that data accurately reflect their performance.

International benchmarking: Offer grants to states to support analyses of state content standards against the skills being measured on international tests.

SOURCES: National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of State Boards of Education

The NGA, the CCSSO, and NASBE called for allowing states to use so-called “growth models” to complement existing accountability measures. Growth models allow schools to receive credit under the federal law for improving individual student progress, not just for reaching proficiency for the school overall and for subgroups.

States should also be able to implement their own systems of rewards and consequences for schools that fail to make the law’s achievement targets, the groups recommend.

Under the current law, schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress by just a small margin, or because a single subgroup misses its goal, are subject to the same sanctions as those that have perennially low scores on state tests for all students. The federal government should also work with states to create “bonus” systems of incentives for schools that maintain high standards and show significant achievement gains.

States should be able to target school interventions, such as tutoring, to the student populations that are struggling to meet the law’s targets, according to the recommendations.

The state groups propose allowing students in special education to take alternate or modified assessments based on their individualized education programs.

They would offer states more flexibility in measuring AYP for English-language learners by allowing them to give such students ample time to learn English and measuring their progress through alternative assessments.

That recommendation troubled Ms. Wilkins of the Education Trust. While proponents of more flexibility in testing ELL students often tell stories of non-English-speaking students who arrive in the United States in the 11th grade and are forced to take state tests, Ms. Wilkins said, those cases are the exception. She said a majority of ELL students were born in this country.

“What are we saying about providing them adequate time if they were born here,” she said, and have been attending American schools for years?

‘Flawed Process’

The state groups called for the law’s “highly qualified teacher” provision to be revised, particularly for rural teachers and teachers of English-language learners or students in special education. They advocate allowing new teachers to be considered highly qualified if they meet standards in their primary subject areas and are on a path for meeting state high, objective uniform standards of evaluation, or HOUSSE, for additional subjects.

Under the current law, a new teacher must have a bachelor’s degree in the subject he or she teaches, or pass a content test in the subject, and be state-certified to be considered highly qualified.

The federal government should also provide grants to states to conduct voluntary analyses to check their content standards against international benchmarks, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS, the groups said.

That recommendation signals a “growing openness” among state policymakers for allowing greater use of benchmarks and transparency in evaluating state standards, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank that is generally supportive of the NCLB law. He noted that states continue to shy away from making such checks mandatory.

The National Conference of State Legislatures had initially been part of the discussions on the other state groups’ document, but did not sign on to it, said David L. Shreve, the senior education committee director for the NCSL. He said that the recommendations were ultimately developed “unilaterally and internally” at the NGA, and that his organization had substantive criticisms that couldn’t be addressed in that “flawed process.”

Mr. Shreve said the NCSL did not support some of the recommendations, such as the growth-model language.

“You can’t have a growth model that then requires the absolute proficiency performance [for all students] at the end of the process,” he said. “That’s not a growth model, that’s some kind of hybrid.”

Gov. Gregoire said that “early on, we hoped we could have a broader group of folks” join in the recommendations. But she said the necessity to get the proposals to Congress in time to influence the reauthorization debate led the groups to “narrow our focus.”

Senate staff members had asked for groups’ recommendations on the law’s reauthorization to be submitted by March 30. Congressional leaders on education say they hope to reauthorize the law on schedule this year, although some observers doubt that it will happen.

Gov. Gregoire said that the NGA, the CCSSO, and NABSE would craft detailed legislative language and submit it to Congress, and would seek to enlist other groups to endorse those proposals.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Governors Enter Fray Over NCLB


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