Rewrite of federal education law could spur changes to testing, accountability in Colorado

The massive rewrite of federal education law now moving through Congress likely will have little immediate impact in Colorado but eventually could lead to changes in testing, how schools are held accountable and more as states gain more freedom to set their own paths.

“It doesn’t have a significant impact on Colorado, at least in the short term,” said Mary Wickersham, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver.

“It allows the states a lot of discretion” in school and district accountability and in interventions for struggling schools, Wickersham said. “All that stuff is left at the discretion of the states.”

If the Senate passes the bill and President Obama signs it, the new landscape will be a familiar one for students, parents, teachers and administrators:

  • Students will continue to take standardized language arts and math tests from third to eighth grade and once in high school.
  • Schools and districts will continue to be rated by the state on the academic performance of their students.
  • Parents and the public will continue to receive reports on those ratings, as well as on the performance of students based on ethnicity, poverty and English language ability.
  • The state and districts will continue to monitor and try to improve the lowest-performing schools.

But three elements of what’s called the Every Student Succeeds Act represent important differences from previous federal law and could lead to changes for Colorado in the future.

State flexibility – The new bill retains many of the broad goals of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which the new measure is intended to replace. But Every Student Succeeds gives states flexibility in setting specific goals and measurements for student achievement and school improvement. “They’re moving to a system that keeps the core principles intact but rejects the one-size-fits-all” model of No Child Left Behind, said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Accountability – The previous law required states to rate schools on “academic” factors, heavily weighted toward test scores. Every Student Succeeds requires states to add at least one “non-academic” factor, things like student and/or educator engagement as measured by surveys, student readiness for the workforce or school climate. States are free to choose which non-academic factors they want to use.

“We’re excited that’s actually required,” interim education Commissioner Elliott Asp told a meeting in Colorado Springs last week. “It requires states to include more than student achievement in the accountability systems.”

The Department of Education recently started studying changes in the accountability and rating system with a work group, and outside groups such as the Student-Centered Accountability Project also are looking at new, broader ways of rating schools and districts.

“We’re on that path,” said Alyssa Pearson, interim associate commissioner. “The timing is pretty good because we’re headed in that direction.” But, she added, “The biggest thing we’re going to have to figure out is that additional indicator.”

Pearson said it hasn’t been determined yet if the Department and the State Board of Education can establish an additional indicator or indicators on their own or if legislative action will be required. The state current accountability system was created by a law passed in 2009.

“The biggest thing is what happens next, what do the rules and regulation look like, what happens at the state level,” Walmer said.

Testing – While Every Student Succeeds leave the testing calendar in place, it does offer the possibility of more flexible testing systems in the future. The bill provides grants states can use to streamline their testing systems, opens the door to use of multiple tests by a state and creates a pilot program under which up to seven states can develop new tests. Asp highlighted that last provision as a welcome move.

Colorado students are expected to take the PARCC language arts and math tests next spring. There’s not enough time to switch to a new test, Asp told the audience of school board members in Colorado Springs.

But state board chair Steve Durham said, “The odds of continuing with that particular assessment are slim” beyond next year. “But I have only one vote.” A majority of the board is on record as opposing PARCC.

Colorado signed on to the PARCC exams after the legislature passed a law requiring the state to join a multi-state testing group.

The Every Student Succeeds bill maintains the requirement – or perhaps the goal – of 95 percent student participation on statewide tests. But it’s up to states to decide what to do about districts that drop below that level. “The test participation requirement looks a lot like where we are now,” Pearson said. Colorado’s current agreement with the federal government only requires low-participation districts to improve test-taking rates but doesn’t penalize them.

Roughly 1 in 10 Colorado students skipped the math and English assessments as a result of parent refusals last spring.

The Every Student Succeeds bill runs hundreds of pages and includes a long list of other provisions, many of them technical. Pearson said there are few substantial changes in Title I and other sections involving federal aid for poor students and other special populations. There are new provisions that may provide more aid for rural schools, and Walmer said she’s pleased with a new program for preschool development grants.

The first Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 and was significantly modified in 2001 with passage of NCLB. That version was best known for its annual testing mandate and the requirement that all students reach proficiency by 2013-14.

Despite mounting dissatisfaction with the law in recent years, congressional gridlock stymied efforts to update it until this year.

Frustrated by that lack of congressional action, in 2011 the U.S. Department of Education offered states waivers from NCLB. Colorado obtained a waiver and just had it renewed.

Colorado’s original waiver allowed it to use some of its own systems instead of original NCLB requirements. Those state systems were in place before the waiver, including district and school ratings (2009) and use of student academic growth in teacher evaluations (2011). And Colorado’s statewide testing system, originally called CSAP, was created in 1997, before NCLB was passed.

Wickersham noted that the waiver process gave the U.S. Department of Education considerable power over state policies.

“The bill kind of bends over backwards to restrict the power of the Department of Education to decide what states can do,” she said.

The original NCLB law contained no requirements for teacher evaluation. But evaluation is part of Colorado’s waiver agreement with the federal government. State waivers will end next year if the new bill passes, and Every Student Succeeds leaves the details of evaluation systems up the states.

The new bill passed the House 359-64 last week and is scheduled for a Senate vote Tuesday.

Here are key differences between the current law and its would-be replacement, and how things look in Colorado now: