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NCLB-Renewal Ideas Circulate on Capitol Hill

By Alyson Klein & David J. Hoff — July 13, 2007 5 min read
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Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has signaled to freshmen in Congress that he’ll propose some major changes to the 5½-year-old No Child Left Behind Act when he releases his reauthorization bill, possibly in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, two Senate Republicans last week introduced their own NCLB reauthorization bill, which would also add more flexibility to the law while retaining its core accountability principles.

Rep. Miller’s anticipated revisions include ideas that have been popular in a number of recent NCLB reauthorization proposals, such as allowing “growth models” as a gauge of student progress and instituting a more tailored range of consequences for schools that don’t meet achievement goals.

Rep. Miller outlined his thinking in a memo distributed last month to freshman House members.

Under the outline, schools could get credit for individual student gains in proficiency—using so-called growth models—and not just for gains by cohorts of students compared with those in previous years. Schools struggling to meet the law’s goals would be subject to interventions appropriate to their needs, according to the outline. And those that continually missed achievement targets would receive more intensive support.

The outline also calls for changes to assessments and accountability systems for English-language learners and students in special education, although it doesn’t offer specifics.

Rep. Miller, who was a key architect of the NCLB bill that President Bush signed into law in 2002 and has strongly supported federal accountability measures, also wrote that he would like to allow states to use “more than test scores” to determine whether students are making progress under the law. He suggested such measures could include “real-time classroom tests that allow teachers to adjust their instruction as necessary.”

That recommendation drew criticism from Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that promotes policies to serve low-income students. She said the recommendation would allow schools to use so-called formative assessments, which are designed to be a diagnostic and teaching tool, for accountability.

She said such tests—while beneficial for instruction—don’t provide a clear, comparable measure of student gains for accountability.

“I’m surprised and disappointed,” Ms. Wilkins said of Mr. Miller’s outline. She said that in the past, Rep. Miller “has been clear as a bell on the need for transparent, straightforward [accountability]. This seems to back away from that.”

Aaron K. Albright, a spokesman for Rep. Miller, took issue with Ms. Wilkins’ criticisms.

“These complaints are a misrepresentation,” he said. “We strongly believe in accountability.”

Joel Packer, the chief NCLB lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he was “generally pleased” with the list of ideas Mr. Miller presented.

“The broad outline closely matches what we’ve advocated for,” he said, noting that the 3.2 million-member teachers’ union had pushed for growth models and allowing schools to use multiple measures to show student gains.

Mr. Packer also noted that Rep. Miller’s memo, which uses the word “interventions” rather than “sanctions” to refer to measures to help struggling schools, appears to reflect a shift in tone from “negative consequences and mandates” to “helpful, supportive assistance.”

Rep. Miller has yet to release a comprehensive reauthorization bill, although several education lobbyists said his staff is aiming to unveil such legislation before Congress adjourns at the end of the month for its August recess.

The Senate bill was introduced July 12 by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a former Senate education committee chairman and another architect of the NCLB law.

The measure, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., would echo some of Rep. Miller’s ideas by introducing more flexibility into the accountability system at the center of the law.

It would permit all 50 states to participate in the Department of Education’s growth-model pilot.

The legislation would revise accountability rules for English-language learners, by allowing them two years to learn English before becoming a part of a school’s accountability system, rather than one year, as under the current law.

The bill would also place a new emphasis on high schools, calling for supports to help identify students at risk of dropping out and resources for accelerated “catch-up” programs for students who are struggling academically. But it would not require additional testing in high schools, unlike a blue-print for reauthorization the White House released in January.

The bill would retain the deadline of the 2013-14 school year for bringing all students to proficiency.

Differing Consequences

Rep. Miller is likely to receive widespread support for his proposal to differentiate interventions based on how far schools fall short of goals for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law, one expert on the law said.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, noted that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings endorsed the idea last month in a meeting with the USA Today editorial board.

“It’s dawning on people … that so many schools are being identified for improvement and states don’t have the resources to adequately deal with them,” said Mr. Jennings, a former House Democratic aide.

But, Mr. Jennings added, Congress is out of touch with the field when it comes to Reading First—a $1 billion-a-year program under the NCLB law that is intended to improve reading instruction in the primary grades. Appropriators have recommended significant cuts to the program for fiscal 2008, citing audits that suggested federal officials improperly influenced states’ decisions about instructional materials to be purchased under the program.

Still, the program is popular with education officials around the country, says a new report from Mr. Jennings’ center.

The Center on Education Policy found in a recent study that 42 states use professional development paid for by the reading program to help schools failing to meet AYP goals. Forty states said they used curriculum materials purchased under Reading First in schools in need of improvement.

“We have a real disconnect between the Congress and what’s happening in local school districts and the states,” Mr. Jennings said.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as NCLB-Renewal Ideas Circulate on Capitol Hill

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