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Revamp of No Child Left Behind fails to satisfy some critics

Congress may soon pass major overhaul of controversial federal education law, but some say changes don't go far enough

Congress is expected within weeks to approve a rewrite of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that has roiled public school districts across the country since it was passed nearly 14 years ago.

The new bill, a bipartisan compromise between the House and Senate that was released to the public on Monday, fails to allay the concerns of some of the law’s staunchest critics. They say the changes fall short of undoing what many call the law’s “test-and-punish” regime, in which student test scores are used to judge teachers and schools, with possible severe consequences that can include the closing of a school. 

“Our schools can’t afford new mandates for high-stakes testing and opportunities for the private sector to profit off kids,” the Network for Public Education, a group of progressive education activists, said in a message to its supporters.

The new bill, renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act, would seem to answer some of the chief concerns of parents and educators across the political spectrum, mainly by rolling back the federal government’s power to dictate education policy to states — a practice that grew under the Obama administration. That’s why both the American Federation of Teachers, a major teachers’ union, and the education policy director for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, have endorsed it.

The rewrite also has the support of the Center for American Progress, an organization associated with President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The bill is also backed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers — both key players behind the Common Core academic standards that have been criticized as developmentally inappropriate for children and overly prescriptive for teachers.

The Every Student Succeeds Act would prohibit the federal education secretary from pushing a particular set of academic standards such as the Common Core. It would also end any requirement for states to use student test scores in evaluating teachers, and it would maintain federal funding for poor schools.

The rewrite additionally prevents the federal government from ordering states to take drastic action against schools with low test scores, such as closing the schools, firing the staff or turning the schools over to privately run charter school operators.

With these changes, many of the biggest battles over education policy would shift from Washington, D.C., to the states.

But to some critics, the bill is less a U-turn from No Child Left Behind than a detour that arrives at more or less the same destination.

For example, education activists on both the right and left are upset that the new law would continue annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school, rather than reverting to the practice prior to No Child Left Behind of testing every few years, such as in grades 4, 8 and 11.

The rewrite would also require states to give many disabled and non-English-speaking students the same exams as children who have no disabilities and are native English speakers. States would be allowed to offer alternative assessments to only 1 percent of their students.

“The reality is, many state exams are neither valid nor diagnostically useful” for children in special education or who are still learning English, the Network for Public Education’s political-action arm said.

Also of concern to some education activists on the left is a provision that would divert federal money to for-profit firms, under so-called “pay for success” programs. In one such program in Utah, an arm of investment bank Goldman Sachs funded a small preschool program and is getting repaid — with a potential for profit — with public funds. Payments are based on the number of children who, after participating, were deemed to no longer need special education services. As The New York Times reported in November, the standards used to measure the program's success have come under scrutiny. And critics of such profit-seeking initiatives in public schools assert that they create perverse incentives to deny children needed services.

Others are concerned that the revamped law still requires states to include student test scores to some degree — how much is unclear — in measuring schools’ achievement.

States would also have to base their tests on some kind of rigorous academic standards, and critics on the right worry that many states will keep in place their current tests on the Common Core standards.

“States would have little motivation to change their tests from the current Common Core tests after having spent … millions of dollars purchasing and implementing them,” a coalition of about 200 mostly conservative groups wrote in a letter to Congress in October.

But some supporters of the compromise bill say that while it isn’t perfect, it is a paradigm change from No Child Left Behind.

“High-stakes testing will no longer be the be-all and end-all of our kids’ education,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote in a blog post Monday. “Teachers would have flexibility to try new ways to teach, to meet the needs of their students, and to help their students think critically and analytically instead of focusing on what might be on a high-stakes test.”

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