Federal

Miller’s NCLB Priorities Spark Fresh Debate

By Mark Walsh & Alyson Klein — August 10, 2007 6 min read
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., discusses his priorities late last month for the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. At right is Debra Silimeo of Hager Sharp Communications.
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The chairman of the House education committee has pledged to seek significant revisions to the No Child Left Behind Act, but education lobbyists say it’s still too early to say whether such plans will result in major changes to the types of measures states may use to gauge student achievement under the law.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., says he would like to allow states to be able to use so-called multiple measures to assess student progress under the law, giving graduation rates as one example. But the question of including alternative measures in the bill to reauthorize the main federal K-12 law has become a major point of discussion, as lawmakers work to craft a bipartisan measure.

In what some observers viewed as a subtle softening of his staunch support for the NCLB law’s accountability system, Rep. Miller late last month signaled that he had come to agree that the statute was in need of an overhaul.

“I can tell you that there are no votes in the U.S. House of Representatives for continuing the No Child Left Behind Act without making serious changes to it,” Mr. Miller said in a July 30 speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “We didn’t get it all right with the writing of this law.”

Rep. Miller said that both Democrats and Republicans on the Education and Labor Committee had listened closely to various critiques of the law and were working toward ironing out a bipartisan reauthorization bill that he hoped the House could pass early this fall.

The NCLB act passed Congress with broad bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bush in January 2002 as a five-year reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which dates back to 1965. The current law’s centerpiece is a requirement that schools test students annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8, and once in high school. Schools that fail to meet benchmarks for progress face a series of consequences intended to hold them accountable for students’ academic performance.

Rep. Miller said his first goal for the next version of the law will be to provide schools with more flexibility and fairness. His bill will introduce so-called growth models, accountability approaches that give schools credit for the progress that individual students make over time, instead of just comparing one cohort of a grade of students with its predecessor.

The Department of Education is conducting a growth-model pilot program in which nine states have been approved to use the method for complying with the NCLB law.

Meanwhile, Rep. Miller endorsed using multiple measures to determine whether a school is achieving adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law. He said the law would continue to include annual tests of reading and math in most grades.

“We will allow the use of additional valid and reliable measures to assess student learning and school performance more fairly, comprehensively, and accurately,” Mr. Miller said. “One such measure for high schools must be graduation rates.”

‘Resistance’ Threatened

Mr. Miller’s mere hint of allowing multiple measures for schools and districts to reach AYP under the law appeared to spark immediate expressions of concern from some key Republicans.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings indicated that she would rather delay action on a bill than accept one that softened the law’s accountability measures.

“While we all hope to see action on reauthorization soon, a comprehensive bill that has bipartisan support and holds firm to the goal of every child reading and doing math on grade level by 2014 is worth the wait,” she said in a statement after Rep. Miller’s remarks.

See Also

For more discussion on this topic, see our blog NCLB: Act II.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the education committee, said in a statement that “any attempts to weaken the law will be met with stiff resistance from House Republicans who have already joined with the civil rights community and business leaders in expressing concerns that some of the Democratic proposals will undermine transparency for parents and the ability to hold schools accountable for student performance.”

Vic Klatt, the staff director for Republicans on the education panel, said this week that discussions on the NCLB reauthorization have been largely bipartisan, but that Democrats and Republicans are still trying to reach agreement on a number of critical issues.

“We’re very uncomfortable with things that are hard to measure being lumped in with the accountability system,” Mr. Klatt said. “Anything that’s not directly tied to student achievement is a problem for us.”

He added that “Mr. Miller has a very difficult balancing act as an original author of NCLB, but he’s done this before, and we think it’s possible to get a bipartisan bill.”

Issues involving English-language learners, funding, school choice, and supplemental educational services, as well as multiple measures, are said to be still on the table.

Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, which favors allowing locally crafted tests to be used for accountability, said it’s unclear whether Rep. Miller will seek to allow states to incorporate such assessments into the final bill. She said, however, that he’s been open to listening to education groups, and talking to his colleagues to get a sense of what House Democrats want to see in the final bill.

But Cynthia G. Brown, the education policy director for the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington, said that while measures such as student portfolios and formative assessments— tests that give teachers continuing feedback on how their students are doing—help improve instruction and deserve federal encouragement, they’re not appropriate for accountability purposes. In her view, it’s unlikely Rep. Miller will let states make them a major part of their accountability systems.

“That would really be a step backward,” Ms. Brown said. “My crystal ball says he won’t do that.”

A Change in View?

At his National Press Club event, Rep. Miller was pressed about the extent of relief from a reliance on test scores that multiple measures of progress might provide schools. He said students would have to be close to scoring at the proficient level on reading and math tests for such measures to play a role.

“This is not an escape hatch,” he said.

This week, more than 20 civil rights and education organizations sent a letter to education committee leaders, including Reps. Miller and McKeon, urging them to permit states to use measures including written essays, research papers, open-ended problems, and performance-based tasks for accountability purposes, rather than relying primarily on state achievement tests.

The groups include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the New York City-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Arlington- Va.-based Council for Exceptional Children.

“The law’s every-grade, every year testing requirement has discouraged the use of assessments of higher-order thinking that motivate ambitious intellectual work and leverage stronger teaching and learning, but take more time and resources to score,” the organizations wrote.

Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the National Education Association, said he noticed a change in tone on Rep. Miller’s part regarding reauthorization of the law.

“He has been much more of a defender of the existing law,” said Mr. Packer, who is the chief lobbyist for the teachers’ union on the NCLB law. “But I think he is changing his view based on what he is hearing from educators, and based on what he is hearing from his fellow members, especially House freshmen.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week as Miller’s NCLB Priorities Spark Fresh Debate

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