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School Leaders Present Their Brand of Accountability for a Renewed ESEA

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 11, 2014 6 min read
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Crossposted from Lesli A. Maxwell at District Dossier.

Saying K-12 educators need an escape from the “holding pattern” caused by the years-long delay in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a group of prominent superintendents this week will begin its push for members of Congress and fellow school leaders to embrace their vision for what the next generation of accountability for public schools ought to be.

Fifteen superintendents who make up the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium have outlined a “federal accountability framework” with principles that they believe a new version of the ESEA should incorporate.

The main takeaways? The group calls for: a whole lot less standardized testing, a whole lot more leeway for states and local districts to set their own academic targets for students—akin to what’s already been happening under the federal No Child Left Behind waivers for states—and an expanded definition of what it means to be college- and career-ready, most notably by demonstrating an “ability and fluency in more than one language.”

The leaders shared the framework exclusively with Education Week in advance of unveiling it later this week at the annual conference of the School Superintendents Association, or AASA.

Echoes of Waivers

The superintendents—who represent districts such as Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta; U-46 in Elgin, Ill.; and Montgomery County in Maryland—have been working on the document for several months and have had two meetings with several members (from both parties) and/or staff from the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The second one was just last week. Committee member Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was instrumental in soliciting the input of the school leaders, said J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent in the 169,000-student Gwinnett County system.

“People in education need this,” said Patrick K. Murphy, the superintendent of the 23,000-student Arlington, Va., district in suburban Washington. “There’s such a void right now, but it’s also an opportunity to help shape the path forward.”

It’s not yet clear how much clout the superintendents have in Congress or how influential their recommendations will be with lawmakers who oversee ESEA reauthorization. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is the chairman of the Senate HELP committee, said only that he would review the proposal.

At the heart of the group’s proposal is the idea that districts such as their own—which they describe as having a record of either exceeding requirements or continuously improving—ought to be free of any federal prescriptions when it comes to setting academic goals, how to evaluate the performance of students and educators, and using narrow, standardized assessments to test every student in certain grade levels. “Earned autonomy,” from such requirements, however, would not be extended to districts and schools where there is chronic underperformance.

The superintendents said that a federal focus on equity for different kinds of students should be preserved in a renewed ESEA, including the disaggregation of academic performance data by race, ethnicity, ELL- and special-education status. They were much less clear on how districts and schools should be held accountable for the performance of those separate subgroups, but did say that federal law should “differentiate” between a state’s oversight of districts that are high-achieving and those that have schools that are persistently low-performing and/or have large achievement gaps. (á la the focus and priority schools in state waivers).

Again, these are ideas that are not wildly different from what is already happening under NCLB waivers in the states or even from what is proposed in two different bills introduced last summer in the Senate—one from Sen. Harkin and another from Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander—to reauthorize ESEA.

Reducing the ‘Burden’ of Assessment

But one major point of departure in the superintendents’ proposal is around assessment. They propose a pretty dramatic reduction in standardized testing. Their suggestions? Giving major summative assessments to students at the conclusion of elementary, middle, and high school (as opposed to the current reading and math testing requirement for every student in grades 3-8, and once in high school), or, more radically, using results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, to measure how well districts and schools are doing.

Both those assessments test representative samples of students at different grade levels in different subjects. NAEP tests students in 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, while PISA is a global assessment that compares reading, math, and science knowledge among 15-year-olds internationally.

“We want to really push on this notion of random assessments,” said José Torres, the superintendent of the 40,000-student U-46 district in suburban Chicago. “The idea is to be able to give students more opportunity to learn in their classrooms rather than requiring every student at every grade level to spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer bubbling in answers.”

Joshua Starr, the superintendent in the 151,000-student Montgomery County, Md., system and one of the most high-profile advocates for changing current assessment policy, said: “If the PISA and the NAEP are seen as a valid and legitimate measure of kids’ skills relative to where they’ve been in the past to where they are now, why can’t those same methodologies be used for the purpose of accountability?”

But what about assessing individual students to judge how they are progressing and to provide information to teachers, administrators, and parents?

The nature, and frequency of those tests, say the school chiefs, should be mostly at the discretion of state and local educators. The framework—which never mentions the names Smarter Balanced or PARCC, the two groups developing assessments aligned with the Common Core standards— also calls for an uptick in federal spending in districts and states that “commit to develop or adopt higher-quality assessments, and allow states and districts to pool funding for the joint development of assessments.”

And the same flavor of local control for deciding how to judge the performance of individual students would also apply to evaluating teachers and administrators under the superintendents’ framework, which also calls for loosening the federal requirements on how districts can spend their Title II funds on teacher professional development and evaluation, especially when those efforts are tied to turning around low-performing schools.

We’ll be keeping our ear to the ground to find out what kind of reception the framework gets this week at the AASA conference in Nashville, and whether the supes can create any momentum in Congress around ESEA. They are banking on their clout, both as in-the-trenches practitioners and as leaders of relatively successful school systems, to get the debate revved up. The size and diversity of their districts is another asset, they think. Collectively, the 15 districts serve 1.3 million students and most have no majority student group .

“We believe the senators want to reauthorize ESEA as much as we do,” said Wilbanks. “And we think the waivers just fragment us. It’s not sustainable.”

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