Jacqueline Ancess on ESEA Reauthorization: Revised Law Should Restore Control to States and Localities
In March, Congress will likely vote on whether to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known since 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The law has been both hailed as a major step toward ensuring that all students succeed, and criticized for an undue emphasis on testing that has narrowed curriculum and penalized schools in poverty. With new legislation proposed in the form of the Student Success Act, the debate over reauthorization continues to heat up. We’ve asked experts from the extended TC family for their thoughts on the issue.
The following commentary is by Jacqueline Ancess, Co-Director, NCREST:
One intention of NCLB was to redress the achievement gap, or the inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes across student sub groups through a strategy of standardized test score accountability. The use of standardized test scores as the sole benchmark of achievement perverted the curriculum to test-preparation, particularly for low scorers, who happened to be overrepresented in those subgroups that NCLB was supposedly trying to help. Although pundits and researcher argue whether the achievement has narrowed or widened, there is consensus that it is still too big to be acceptable (I often wonder how small the gap will have to be in order to be acceptable). This is a statistical modeling game.
If we look at standardized test scores as a proxy for some tangible worthwhile commodity such as admission to a specialized high school in NYC or 4-year public college in NYC, the NCLB policy has been a disaster because it doesn’t deliver. For the last 15 years, the percentage of Black and Latino students’ admission to NYC’s specialized high schools has declined dramatically as has their admission to NYC’s 4-year public colleges. Even the highly touted Success Academy charter schools, which claim to be the top scoring schools in NY State, did not have one student accepted to a NYC specialized high school. The use of standardized test scores by charter school authorizers to make decisions on reauthorization no doubt contributes to some charter schools’ high student expulsion and dropout rates. Success Academy 2014 8th grade graduating class contained only 44% of its original first grade cohort. What happened to the other 56%? Now New York’s Governor wants students’ standardized test scores to count for 50% of teachers’ evaluations, even though there is no credible science drawing a cause-effect relationship that might justify such a policy. Research shows the strongest test score correlation is with family income! Only the test making corporations are benefitting from the current testing policy. If you think the new consortia tests are any better than the old ones, take a sample test—they are online. They use the same test-taking tricks as the bad old standardized tests.
The reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to redress the standardized test score accountability debacle. The revised law should undo the federal centralization of education and return power to localities and states so that those individuals who actually send their children to the public schools can reclaim their voice. Where states use expanded local power to enact inequity, the federal government will need to intervene. The revised law should create incentives for states and localities to develop more authentic forms of student, school, and teacher assessment such as student performance assessments, sampling such as the NAEP does, and teacher portfolio systems that can demonstrate what students know and can do and the relationship that teaching and school policies and practices have to that. Where schools have a failing culture, one where the stakeholders deny and reject their agency, where they believe and demonstrate through samples of authentic work that they cannot collectively revitalize their school so that students and staff thrive, then they will likely need to be closed. If we put authentic measures in place, we may actually have a chance to achieve authentic accountability.
The views expressed in the previous article are solely those of the speakers to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, or staff either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.