Senate No Child Left Behind Bill Draws Fire for Weakness on Accountability

By Catherine Gewertz — July 17, 2015 2 min read
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You’ve probably heard by now that the Senate passed its version of a rewritten No Child Left Behind Act. Yesterday’s approval of the Every Child Achieves Act was a resounding one, with an 81-17 vote. Our own Lauren Camera, of Politics K-12, has the lowdown for you on the Senate bill. And fellow Politics K-12 blogger Alyson Klein offers you a wonderful side-by-side comparing the Senate bill with the House’s own version, approved last week.

The two chambers now move into conference mode, where they try to come up with legislation that can win approval in both. In the pause, we can take a quick look at parts of the Senate bill that pertain to secondary school.

As Lauren reports, it pares back the federal role in education and gives states more flexibility in deciding how to hold themselves accountable for their work. This means no more “annual yearly progress” requirements or punishments, and freedom to decide how to intervene when schools, or subgroups of students, aren’t doing well.

Under the Senate’s bill, states would still have to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and report disaggregated performance data for student subgroups, a provision of No Child Left Behind that was widely seen as shining a long-needed light on the struggles of traditionally underserved students.

But states wouldn’t have to identify a specific portion of lowest-performing schools to intervene in, or specify what they have to do to help low-performing schools. (By way of comparison, most states currently have to identify the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools and take specific steps to improve them.) One amendment would have required states to intervene in high schools that were graduating fewer than two-thirds of their students, but that amendment failed to win approval.

One amendment that did pass, however, will require high schools to add a new chunk of potentially painful information to their states’ report cards: their postsecondary enrollment rates. That legislation, offered by Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, also encourages states to include the remediation rates of their high schools’ graduates.

The new flexibility for states on accountability and intervention, however, drew immediate fire from many Democrats and civil rights advocates. Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which pushes for policies that support and improve high schools, said that the Senate legislation “could start a major retreat from the recent historic increases in high school graduation rates.”

Although the Every Child Achieves Act requires states to collect and report data on schools and provides extensive flexibility to states on how to respond, it does not actually require states to act. Instead, it permits states to decide when, if, and where to intervene. That’s like equipping the fire department with new tools and alarms, then letting it choose which fires to put out,” he said. “With more than 1,200 high schools still graduating less than two-thirds of their students, now is not the time to be tough on data and weak on action. Of the more than 1.1 million students attending these schools, most are students of color and students from low-income families... Support for low-graduation-rate high schools and protections for these students must be included in this bill before it becomes law.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took a whack at the softer accountability requirements in the Senate bill, too.

We need to identify which schools work and which ones don’t, so we can guarantee that every child will have the education they need,” he said. “We cannot tolerate continued indifference to the lowest performing schools, achievement gaps that let some students fall behind, or high schools where huge numbers of students never make it to graduation. This bill should also do more to maintain focus on what matters most—whether students are actually learning and graduating, and whether those that need the greatest help receive the resources and support they need.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.