Obama Administration officials announced earlier this month that they would consider waiver requests from states “seeking relief” from provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Without offering specific parameters for the waivers, an emphasis on flexibility was noted.
The Department of Education has already escalated its granting of flexibility waivers, but this announcement was the first acknowledgement that a systematic strategy was in place. Criticism about the law’s testing requirements has escalated over recent years, but there has been little visible consensus behind how they should be changed to maintain accountability.
The waiver strategy was originally presented to the administration in 2010 by the National Education Association. The union favors replacing the law’s reliance on state standardized testing with what it describes as “multiple measures of accountability,” besides written tests, to track schools’ effectiveness. Union leaders prefer the use of portfolio assessments, a subjective process of evaluating varying samples of students’ work, in place of standardized testing. In 1998 now-Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, the same spokesperson who announced the waiver plan, declared that the Obama campaign supported using this controversial approach.
Flexibility, in a general sense, has become a rallying cry for those who oppose the federal law. But for students who demonstrated progress under the law, especially compared with the scant accountability of the previous system, there is much to lose as well. Black and Latino fourth graders have shown significant gains under NCLB, especially in math but reading also.
But the biggest changes have come for the growing population of 6 million students in the U.S. struggling to learn English. Prior to NCLB, they were taught outside of school accountability systems. Academic gains, and measurable progress teaching English, were often negligible in programs funded under the federal Bilingual Education Act. Often these students were segregated in low-performing classrooms taught exclusively in Spanish.
While low test scores persist for this vital student population, in many states they are making progress. The number of California’s sixth-grade English learners scoring at woeful “below basic” levels on state tests declined 14 percentage points since 2007. Elsewhere there has been less progress: Between 2003 and 2009, English learners in Chicago showed no improvement in fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, while the number eighth-graders testing at or above “basic” levels improved by 5 percentage points. Unlike California, where accountability for classroom results is highly transparent, Chicago’s school accountability is so poor that the Commercial Club of Chicago has called on the board of education to hire an independent auditing firm to review all data bearing on school performance.
While problems with NCLB are well documented and the law is in need of an update, obfuscating accountability for classroom progress would have harmful implications for students across the nation – especially for English learners.
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