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Senate Panel Skirts Title I, Standards Link in Weighing ESEA Renewal

By Alyson Klein — May 11, 2010 4 min read
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Lawmakers on a Senate panel charged with renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act continue to express broad agreement that a state-led initiative aimed at developing more rigorous and uniform academic standards is headed in the right direction.

But senators so far have largely sidestepped some of the trickier issues in renewing the ESEA, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act that was signed into law in 2002.

For instance, during a more than two-hour hearing recently on standards and assessments, not one lawmaker mentioned the Obama administration’s proposal to tie together standards and Title I funding for disadvantaged students—suggesting that the panel may not be enthusiastic about the idea.

Under the proposal, which was included in the administration’s blueprint for renewing the ESEA, in order to tap Title I funds states would have to ask their institutions of higher education to certify that their standards would prepare high school graduates for college or a career. Alternately,states could join a consortium aimed at adopting common college- and career-readiness standards, such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

That effort, led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, has drawn cooperation from 48 states and the District of Columbia and earned praise during the April 28 hearing. As for the administration’s Title I idea, however, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in an interview after the hearing that he is “studying” the issue.

Standards Effort Praised

Still, lawmakers spoke quite a bit about how higher standards could help address one of the criticisms of the current version of the 8-year-old NCLB law: That states don’t necessarily have to set their standards so that students are ready for college or a career. As a result, nearly 60 percent of students entering postsecondary schools need remedial coursework before they can start earning college credit.

“The good news is that once again states are taking the lead” in addressing that issue, Sen. Harkin said, referring to the common-core effort.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the committee, complimented the initiative but cautioned that the U.S. government shouldn’t get overly involved.

“The federal government should stay out of the way of these efforts,” he said. “As we work on the reauthorization of ESEA, we should find ways to assist states, not require or coerce them, with this difficult, but important, work.”

Sen. Enzi also said he wants Congress to move deliberately on reauthorization, and not go quickly just to comply with an “artificial timeline.”

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to pass a bill this year, and Sen. Harkin has said he’d like to get legislation through the Senate this summer, although a number of lobbyists have expressed skepticism about such a timeline. The ESEA had been due for renewal in 2007.

Also during the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W.Bush, recalled how an attempt to create national standards in the 1990s fizzled, in part because of conflict over social studies, particularly history.

“I compliment the work that the states have done so far,” Sen. Alexander told the witnesses, who included Stephen L. Paine, the state superintendent in West Virginia.

But, the senator said, referring to the two subjects addressed in the common-core draft, “English and math are the easy parts of a very hard thing to do. I want to see how you do this with United States history when the time comes.”

Encouraging Flexibility

Sen. Alexander also said he’d be open to several different sets of common standards. For instance, he suggested, Massachusetts could join with other states in one consortium, while Iowa might join another. He said that approach might be easier—and lead to a more challenging set of standards—than if nearly all states try to get on board with the same set of standards and assessments.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he wants the new system to recognize both state and local flexibility in setting standards. But he also wanted to know how the federal government could make sure that states challenge their students.

“I understand the importance of state flexibility and local flexibility in implementing these standards,” Sen. Franken told Gary Phillips, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, based in Washington. But he alluded to the testimony of one witness about “the loophole in NCLB” that led to “very low standards in some states.”

Mr. Phillips suggested that the federal government encourage states to benchmark their cutoff scores against those of other nations. He said that states sometimes adopt high standards and say they are challenging students, but set passing scores at a very low level.

Mr. Phillips also encouraged the committee to steer states toward computer-based tests, which he said are better at measuring student growth and can help differentiate assessments, including ensuring that the highest-performing students get a chance to show achievement gains.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel Skirts Title I, Standards Link in Weighing ESEA Renewal

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