Law’s Timeline on Proficiency Under Debate

By David J. Hoff — September 24, 2007 6 min read
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When President Bush and Congress crafted the No Child Left Behind Act, they agreed on one specific goal for academic achievement: All students would be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Once considered sacrosanct, that goal appears to be open for negotiation as House and Senate leaders consider plans to reauthorize the law.

Although congressional leaders haven’t proposed plans to relax the 2013-14 goal, they have backed down from earlier public statements supporting it. Their recent statements suggest that they are willing to reconsider the timeline.

The House Education and Labor Committee’s draft NCLB-renewal bill would require schools to track students’ academic growth based on the law’s original proficiency deadline, but the target and everything else in the draft are open for discussion, said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for the Democrats on the committee.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said that the chairman of the Senate education committee considers the goal important. But her statement did not mention the importance of the current deadline.

“We should take a fresh look at all aspects of the law, but not abandon the overarching goal of getting all students to grade-level standards within a certain timeline,” said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “Parents want to know that their teachers and communities are working to ensure that their children are meeting high standards right now.”

The NCLB law’s staunchest defenders, including Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, do not want to relax the 2013-14 proficiency goal because they believe any such change would remove an incentive for schools to improve their students’ performance.

“You start letting [the deadline] slide, then the whole thing starts to slide,” said Arthur J. Rothkopf, the senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential business lobby in Washington that is working to preserve the testing-and-accountability rules of the existing law. “There needs to be a sense of urgency here.”

‘Bright Line’ Blurring?

The goal of universal proficiency in reading and mathematics is one of the hallmarks of the NCLB law, which requires states to test public school students’ performance in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

The goal is one of the “bright line” principles that Secretary Spellings says should not be changed as Congress considers revisions to the 5½-year-old law, which President Bush counts as one of his most important domestic achievements.

But several proposals to revise or extend the goal have been offered. The Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group that is one of the law’s strongest supporters, has suggested that the deadline could be extended in states that adopted standards ensuring that students were ready to enter college or the workplace.

Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who are critical of the law, have a plan to postpone the deadline until Congress fully funds the law’s Title I, which provides compensatory education for disadvantaged students.

The most comprehensive legislative plan for the reauthorization, which is still in draft form, would keep the proficiency goal.

In an Aug. 28 “discussion draft” for the NCLB law’s Title I, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House education committee proposed that states be allowed to use so-called growth models for accountability if those models ensured that all students would be proficient by the end of the 2013-14 school year. In a small concession to critics of the goal, the draft bill would allow schools and districts to count students as proficient if their test-score growth from the previous three years was on track to becoming proficient. (“Draft Bill Heats Up NCLB-Renewal Debate,” Sept. 5, 2007.)

But Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the committee’s chairman, drew attention earlier this month when he declined to state that the proficiency goal was untouchable. In an impromptu session with reporters after a Sept. 10 committee hearing, Rep. Miller was asked whether the goal would be open for negotiation as he revises the draft and prepares a final bill for his committee to consider. His noncommittal response was a notable contrast to his earlier defenses of the deadline.

The future of the proficiency deadline and the rest of the NCLB law may come into focus in the next few weeks. Rep. Miller had hoped to have a working session on the bill by the end of September, but won’t meet that deadline, Mr. Kiley said last week.

Both Rep. Miller and Sen. Kennedy have set a goal of getting bills passed by their respective chambers by the end of the year.

The 2013-14 proficiency goal—like the No Child Left Behind law itself—has its steadfast supporters and vocal critics. In formal responses to the House discussion draft and at the Sept. 10 hearing by education, business, and other groups, Rep. Miller and members of his committee heard conflicting arguments about the universal-proficiency goal.

The Business Coalition for Student Achievement, which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, another influential group, told the panel the goal should be maintained. So did the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with ties to prominent Democrats.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association told the committee the goal was too ambitious and would “severely limit” schools’ ability to meet accountability targets.

Others argued that the goal gives states the incentive to create a low definition of proficiency so that schools will have an easy time meeting the 2013-14 target.

“It’s logically inconsistent to be for high standards [and] at the same time call for universal proficiency by 2014,” Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said in an interview.

“You have to pick one or the other,” said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President Bush’s first term.

Sens. Feingold and Leahy last week introduced a bill that would postpone the universal proficiency target until after the Title I program was funded with the full amount it is authorized to receive under the NCLB law. For the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the program received a $12.8 billion appropriation, a little more than half the authorized level. (“On Senate Panel, a Different Dynamic for NCLB Renewal,” this issue.)

Promoting Higher Standards

But the proposal for extending the goal that has drawn the most attention is one the Education Trust unveiled in April.

Under the plan, the proficiency deadline would be extended by up to 10 years for states that agreed to rewrite their proficiency standards to be geared to preparing students to attend college or start careers. (“Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency,” April 18, 2007.)

“We’re very concerned … that we’ll get to 2014 and you’ll have kids meeting standards that will get them nowhere,” Amy Wilkins, the Education Trust’s vice president of government relations and communications, said last week.

So far, 26 states are working to align their standards with the college- and workforce-readiness expectations being developed under the American Diploma Project, which is run by Achieve Inc., a Washington-based organization led by governors and business leaders that promotes higher academic standards. The Education Trust and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation are partners in that project.

“The best thing the federal government can do is to put some octane in that movement,” Ms. Wilkins said. “You can’t give states a higher mountain to climb and not extend the timeline.”

The states also would receive leniency on the expectation that all students would be proficient under those standards. Eighty percent of students would need to achieve to the college-readiness level, and 95 percent would need to be proficient at the current levels, under the Education Trust’s plan.

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week as Law’s Timeline On Proficiency Under Debate


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