February 2 — 3:55 pm, 2016

No Child Left Behind replaced; new federal law adds flexibility

The controversial No Child Left Behind law, adopted in 2002, has been replaced by the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” signed by President Obama in December.

The changes soften some of the high-stakes testing and accountability provisions of NCLB, giving greater flexibility to states in assessing school performance. Much local reaction to this key federal law has been positive.

But states will still have mandatory annual testing in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Results will still be broken out for individual schools and for demographic subgroups of students to look for inequities, as NCLB mandated.

And the law still requires that states intervene in the lowest-rated schools, but they get to decide what to do with this group, in the bottom 5 percent.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said he’s “extremely pleased” with the new law’s greater flexibility, noting that accountability and support “can be differentiated based on the needs of students.”

Rivera says this will allow for a less punitive environment for students with disabilities and those still learning English.

Those students “will still take the tests, but it won’t be the end-all-be-all, the only measurement to access success,” said Rivera.

NCLB imposed mandatory standards and sanctions based entirely on standardized tests, attendance, and graduation rates, with schools required to reach annual targets or face escalating penalties. Increasingly, as the number of schools requiring intervention grew, states were granted waivers.

With ESSA, states can develop their own methods for judging school quality, Rivera says Gov. Wolf will soon roll out a new method to measure school achievement. The administration believes this rating system, developed with broad input, will give a more nuanced look at school performance.

Some advocates worry about the reduced federal role under the new law.

“When states are given unfettered control over education, the civil rights of the most educationally vulnerable students often go unprotected, and academic outcomes actually suffer,” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center. With federal mandates, “there’s a greater likelihood that you’re really addressing the civil rights of all vulnerable student cohorts.”

McInerney said she hopes that Pennsylvania will use its newfound autonomy for the benefit of the state’s most at-risk children. She’s encouraged that ESSA adds protections for adjudicated youth and homeless and foster children.

The new law requires that three of four metrics used by states to rate schools focus on academic achievement. McInerney hopes Pennsylvania’s fourth measure will focus on reducing racial inequities in disciplinary actions.

ESSA is likely to shift contentious policy debates back to the state level, such as how to rate schools, assess teacher performance, and intervene at low-performing schools.

Additional reporting from Kevin McCorry of WHYY/NewsWorks


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