New federal education law leaves ‘No Child’ behind

The landmark K-12 education measure signed into law Thursday by President Barack Obama will have a sweeping impact on California’s 6.2 million public school students, effectively ending 14 years in which the federal government played an outsized role in setting detailed goals for school performance and meting out punishments for failing to meet them.

The law, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed through both houses of Congress this month with unusually swift, bipartisan support. It allows states to set their own education goals and determine how best to measure their effectiveness. The act requires annual testing in math and reading in grades three through eight, and once in high school. But it potentially lowers the stakes by reducing the role of the federal government in dictating sanctions for low-performing schools.

In addition, states have renewed flexibility in deciding how and whether to incorporate test results into teacher evaluations.

The law largely marks the end of No Child Left Behind, a 2002 measure passed during the George W. Bush administration that set strict achievement goals for all students in core subjects and required schools to improve their performance from year to year. The goal was ambitious: to hold schools accountable for ensuring every student became proficient in reading and math, regardless of race, ethnicity, income status or language barriers.

Over time, the approach was broadly criticized as overly punitive and unrealistic. Educators complained that “teaching to the test” took precedence over more meaningful education strategies.

In many ways, experts said, the new federal law mirrors a recent shift in California education policy: more local control over schools, less emphasis on rote testing and no mandate to use test scores to evaluate teachers. California leaders have moved toward incorporating measures such as graduation rates and college preparedness, along with test scores, when grading schools.

“I think, on balance, this is good news for California,” said David Plank, a Stanford professor and executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research consortium. “The feds are moving into alignment with us.”

Though most California schools consistently improved their performance under No Child Left Behind, thousands were deemed as failing, because they were unable to keep pace with the escalating expectations for all demographic subgroups. Teachers and parents began to lose faith in the program as they were told a large proportion of their students were scoring proficient on the tests – but that the schools were still subject to penalties.

“We had to send all these letters to 5,400 of these schools saying they were failing,” said Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education. “They were in Palo Alto, everywhere else.”

Under the old law, schools put in “program improvement” were required to divert federal funding to extracurricular tutoring and to offer students free transportation to a school not deemed to be failing. Education leaders often were unhappy with the quality of the tutoring and the money flowing out of their schools to fund it, Kirst said.

As No Child Left Behind standards rose, most states obtained waivers from its requirements by agreeing to adopt certain federal policies favored by the Obama administration. But California fought with the federal government over the requirement that test results be part of teacher evaluations. The new act effectively ends that argument.

“We get hundreds of millions of dollars that we can now use for better purposes,” Kirst said.

While the new standards still require testing, they create room for additional considerations when gauging school performance, such as graduation rates and school climate, said Bob Blattner, a consultant and lobbyist for public schools. California has moved in that direction by suspending its Academic Performance Index, or API, a single composite number that encapsulates all test scores at a school.

Even so, the new education law will require California and other states to identify and improve the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, along with high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of their students. It’s unclear, Kirst said, whether something like the API will be needed to identify that bottom 5 percent.

Plank said that provision of the new law could hurt the state. “One of the great steps California has made in the last few years is to get rid of the API, the idea that we can boil down a school’s performance to a single number,” Plank said. The new law, he said, “sets up an inexorable pressure to create an index.”

Sacramento-area school officials said they welcomed the new law. Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross said No Child Left Behind often conflicted with a separate state-run system of evaluating student performance, which was confusing to parents. He said the district also is happy to be free of some funding mandates that came with No Child Left Behind sanctions.

“Our district has been openly critical of some portions of NCLB with regard to after-school tutoring,” he said. “We’ve questioned the efficacy of the approach.”

The new law does not specify whether states must adopt Common Core education standards, a political lightning rod, especially in some conservative states. Kirst said California will continue its implementation of Common Core.

The new federal measure does come with risks, said Gary Orfield, an education professor at UCLA and co-founder of the Civil Rights Project. Shifting control back to 50 different states raises the odds that one or more states will come up with bad plans for educating students.

“If the state wants to do something that makes no sense, a lot of problems are going to develop,” Orfield said. “It depends on whether or not the local folks are competent ... I’m not so worried about California.”

Ryan Smith, executive director of the Oakland-based research group The Education Trust-West, said the new act “isn’t a perfect bill” but does provide important safeguards for the state’s most vulnerable students in ensuring equitable outcomes, a key aspect of the old No Child Left Behind law.

“The law has moved federal oversight to states, and states now make decisions regarding how we measure the success of school and districts,” Smith said.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

Related stories from Sacramento Bee