Despite their agreement on the overall goals and principles of the No Child Left Behind Act, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., differ on the accountability policies they believe are needed to achieve those goals.
In a Sept. 5 letter to Mr. Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Ms. Spellings wrote that she was “deeply troubled” by several sections of a draft bill to reauthorize the main provisions of Title I of the NCLB law, which the chairman and the ranking Republican on the committee unveiled last month.
Ms. Spellings said in a speech earlier that day that the draft bill’s accountability proposals would create “big loopholes” that would allow schools to escape from the accountability system even though their students weren’t on track to become proficient in reading and mathematics.
“Everyone knows that the more complicated the system, the easier it is to manipulate or obfuscate or confuse the bottom line,” Ms. Spellings said in her speech here at an event organized by the Business Coalition for Student Achievement. The coalition is made up of business, civil rights, and other groups seeking to keep much of the federal education law’s accountability rules intact.
Speaking at the same event in advance of the secretary’s remarks, Rep. Miller said that reading and math scores should remain the most important element of the NCLB law’s accountability system. But he would allow states to use test scores on a variety of academic subjects and other indicators when calculating adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the key measure of performance under the law.
“We can make a fairer assessment of those students by using other statewide assessments of those students’ subjects and to provide some portion of that question of whether or not they are making AYP,” he said. “None of this requires a retreat from accountability.”
Rep. Miller and Secretary Spellings made their speeches as the House education committee was preparing to consider a bill to reauthorize the 5½-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
At the business coalition’s event, both said they remained committed to the law’s goal that students will be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Both also endorsed the concept that schools be held accountable for making progress toward that goal.
But their statements at and after the event showed a rift between them over how to do so.
By Sept. 5, more than 10,000 people had submitted comments on the discussion draft of the law’s main provisions that Rep. Miller and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the education committee’s senior Republican, had released Aug. 28. The draft would alter accountability rules and make other changes in the first section of Title I of the law. (“Draft NCLB Bill Intensifies the Discussion,” Sept. 5, 2007.)
Last week, Reps. Miller and McKeon released a draft for the reauthorization of the other sections of the NCLB law, which cover the Reading First program, efforts to improve teacher quality and effectiveness, and several other programs serving K-12 schools. In the Title I draft, some proposed changes have widespread support, such as using what are known as growth models in the accountability system. Such models track individual students’ progress toward meeting goals for adequate yearly progress and use those scores to determine whether a school or district is making AYP.
A dozen states have permission to use growth models under a federal pilot project, but all others compare cohorts of students, meaning a school’s AYP status is calculated by comparing the achievement of one year’s 3rd graders, for example, with that of 3rd graders from the year before.
But Rep. Miller, the most influential education policymaker in the House, and Secretary Spellings, the Bush administration’s leading lobbyist and spokeswoman for the NCLB law, are divided on important issues related to accountability and interventions in schools failing to achieve AYP.
Rep. Miller argued that basing accountability decisions on reading and math scores alone, as the law currently does, is unfair to schools. Those scores should be supplemented with test results in other subjects, as long as such tests are reliable, he says.
“We’re asking for this information to be made available for a more complete picture” of how a school is performing, Rep. Miller said in a conference call with reporters last week, shortly after he gave brief remarks at the business coalition event.
High schools could use indicators such as graduation rates and college enrollment rates to demonstrate their success, he added during the calls.
Such changes are intended to deal with criticisms that the law’s accountability system encourages schools to focus narrowly on reading and math. But critics of the law say that the draft bill doesn’t go far enough in addressing that concern.
“The committee draft falls short of that goal by overemphasizing testing at the expense of improving teaching and learning [and] paying too little attention to correcting NCLB’s perverse incentives, which narrow curriculum and reduce education to test-prep, especially for the ‘left behind’ groups,” the Forum on Educational Accountability wrote in aSept. 5 letter to the leaders of the House education committee.
The forum is a coalition of education and civil rights groups that includes both major teachers’ unions as well as associations representing superintendents, school board members, and other school officials.
But Ms. Spellings said that establishing new ways to calculate AYP would undercut the law’s ultimate goal that all children be proficient in reading and math.
“We’re on the right track,” she said in a conference call with reporters on Sept. 5. “We don’t need to water this law down and change directions now.”
In addition to her objections to the draft House proposals on AYP, Secretary Spellings said she didn’t like the draft’s proposed interventions in schools that fail to make adequate progress for two or more years in a row. The draft bill would label such schools as “priority schools” or “high-priority schools.” Priority schools would be those that failed to make AYP goals for one or two of the racial, ethnic, and other demographic subgroups of students that the law tracks in each school. The high-priority schools would be ones in which students miss their achievement targets in most or all subgroups.
Under the draft, the priority schools would not be required to offer their students tutoring or the choice of attending another school in the district. Under the current law, schools that fail to make AYP for two years straight, even if only for a single subgroup, must offer school choice. If they miss AYP for a third year, they must also offer tutoring.
“These kids who are eligible for service today suddenly would not have help” under the draft bill, Ms. Spellings said in the conference call, adding that 250,000 students would lose access to tutoring.
The Education Industry Association, which represents tutoring providers and other for profit education businesses, expressed similar concerns in a statement released Aug. 30 (requires Microsoft Word).
Rep. Miller said that the draft lists tutoring as one of several interventions administrators in the priority schools could choose in efforts to improve achievement.
Although Ms. Spellings and Mr. Miller have their differences over the NCLB draft bill, the secretary said she was hopeful that their commitment to the overall goals of the law would enable them to reach a compromise.
“If we’re all working from the same assumptions and bright-line principles,” she said in the call with reporters, “maybe we just have some [legislative] drafting issues to work through.”
Rep. Miller said he expected that the House education committee would consider an NCLB bill by the end of September, and that a bill would be debated on the House floor and passed by the end of the year.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee plans to take up its NCLB reauthorization proposal this month and hopes to win the full Senate’s approval of the measure by the end of the year.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week