Congress Needs a Different ESEA Blueprint

By Monty Neill, Interim Executive Director

This was posted on the National Journal blog at

The Obama Administration's "Blueprint for Reform" continues to rely far too heavily on standardized tests to control schools and define learning. As a result, it provides far too little reform of the discredited No Child Left Behind law (NCLB). Too much of this plan merely rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Congress must largely reject this Blueprint and craft a law that thoroughly overhauls NCLB and puts the federal government on track to provide substantial assistance to schools while supporting genuine accountability that helps schools improve. The Forum on Educational Accountability has developed such a blueprint in the areas of assessment, accountability, school improvement and opportunity to learn.

The Administration proposes to improve tests, but provides no meaningful detail on how it will do so. They are perhaps waiting in part to release their guidelines for use of the Secretary Duncan’s $350 million Race to the Top (RTTT) assessment pot, due in 2-3 weeks. Still, the Blueprint provides no evidence that it will support multiple measures (multiple sources of different types of evidence of student learning) instead of slightly revised standardized tests. It assumes "growth" can be reduced to scores on tests and pretends that two ways of looking at one test - growth and status - are actually two different things.

It continues to insist that states test all students in grades 3-8, even though such extensive testing is not necessary for accountability or school improvement. Nations doing well on international comparisons only test about once each in elementary, middle and high school.  The requirement to have so many tests only ensures each one is cheap and low quality. It will make the situation worse by encouraging states to add standardized tests in more subjects. While the document uses the word "assessment," it provides no evidence that the Department means anything more than standardized tests. 

The Administration also would intensify some of NCLB's worst characteristics by requiring states and districts to judge teachers in significant part on student test scores, as required in RTTT. Combined with these other misuses and overuses of tests, the Administration's proposals will continue the push to reduce the nation's schools to test prep programs.

The RTTT requirements for overhauling low scoring schools have failed in Chicago, but the Administration now wants to make them part of ESEA. This should remind us how the Bush Administration used Texas to sell NCLB. Only later did we find how much of the “data” was fraudulent. This time, Congress has the information. The Administration’s specific proposals for low-scoring schools would greatly damage urban public schools systems, not improve them, and similarly hurt low-income rural and suburban schools. Its proposals will continue to promote the reduction of teaching and learning to test preparation in our nation’s schools that serve our most vulnerable children.

ESEA must establish a different approach to helping schools in dire trouble, starting with ensuring they have adequate resources, and then helping them implement improvement efforts tailored to their specific needs, with actual evidence they have a chance of working. Further, such schools must be identified by more than test scores leavened only slightly by other factors. 

There are some positive steps in the Blueprint, such as proposing support for school quality reviews and requiring states to develop plans to improve equity across their schools. But even in these cases, the steps are too limited. For example, it is unclear how the Administration sees the use of school quality reviews. They should be part of a comprehensive replacement for test-based accountability that the federal government should help the states develop. The Blueprint says it supports professional collaboration, but its specific language fails to make central that approach to strengthening the education workforce.

Perhaps most promising is that the Blueprint appears to eliminate adequate yearly progress and sanctions for all but the lowest-performing schools. This is good news, but undermined by insisting on failed approaches for low-scoring schools and by the overuse and misuse of tests. The Administration’s proposal to require all students to be on track to be “career and college ready” by 2020 is as unattainable as NCLB’s requirement that all students attain “proficiency” by 2014. If this reasonable goal is attached to an impossible timeline, it will simply become the new basis for continuing to castigate schools and teachers for not accomplishing what society has failed to provide the resources to accomplish. 

Finally, in many places it is difficult to know what the Administration intends or how it would spell out the often too-vague language of the Blueprint. This leaves it up to Congress to fill in the details. But Congress must not merely insert positive details, it must reject this Blueprint and construct its own.