New Law Being Hashed Out by D.C. Lawmakers May Have Big Impact on NJ Schools

Replacement for No Child Left Behind Act would give states more leeway in determining standards and developing own testing

U.S. Capitol
The No Child Left Behind Act, the 14-year-old federal law that spawned tough testing and tougher questions for the nation’s public schools, is likely soon to be, well, left behind.

While details of what will replace that law remain in flux, as Congress continues to deliberate, the implications for New Jersey and other states are starting to emerge.

Congressional negotiators yesterday agreed to a new “framework” for legislation that would replace NCLB and its many requirements. The bill – preliminarily named the Every Child Achieves Act — would give states far more leeway to develop their own testing and accountability measures.

It is by no means a final deal, as it now goes back to the Senate and House for what will surely be more wrangling. Deliberations on the bill, its language still being written, are set to start in the House in early December.

But there appears to be general agreement on a few principles that will surely have an impact on New Jersey schools, which in recent years have been a focal point in the national debate on public education.

For instance, the new agreement would retain the requirement for annual testing in language arts and math from third grade through eighth grade, and once in high school, along with requiring public release of those test results broken down into various categories. It would also continue to require science testing at least three times between third grade and 12th grade.

But it would leave up to individual states to decide what that testing looks like and would not require schools to meet predetermined measures of “adequate yearly progress,” opening the way for a variety of approaches.

That is surely to have an impact in New Jersey, which is now grappling with its switch to the new online PARCC testing, which run from third grade through 11th grade and has drawn both praise and protest.

The pending agreement in Congress would still call on the states to intervene in schools not meeting standards derived based on testing and other measures, but those standards would apply to only the very lowest-performing schools and would not dictate what form that intervention should take.

At least in terms of policy, New Jersey has been among the most aggressive states when it comes to intervening in failing schools and school districts, although that hasn’t necessarily been driven by federal law. For instance, New Jersey now controls part or all of the operations of four of its largest public-school districts – the longest-standing takeover, of the Jersey City schools, goes back 30 years.

And the bill pending in Congress explicitly forbids the federal government from setting national standards, such as the Obama administration’s endorsement of the Common Core State Standards.

That is a nod to the conservative right that has lately opposed Common Core, including New Jersey’s own Gov. Chris Christie, who has moved away from his previous support of those national standards in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Also notable is what the new bill does not include. The law would not require states to set up new teacher evaluation and accountability measures, one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration and its outgoing education secretary, Arne Duncan.

[related]The administration pushed for such measures through the Race to the Top grant competitions, as well as subsequent waivers granted to states, including New Jersey.

National union leadership has so far applauded the latest congressional agreement, although how much that would affect teacher-evaluation procedures already in place is unclear.

In what is perhaps the most critical piece, the agreement would not change how the federal government provides funding to public schools, which is now concentrated heavily on schools with high percentages of children from low-income families. It would maintain grant programs for other at-risk students as well, in addition to funding for after-school, innovation, and preschool programs.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday said he and other state commissioners are watching the negotiations closely. The Council of Chief State School Officers, a national organization, is meeting this week in South Carolina, where the proposed legislation is expected to be the center of attention.

“We just don’t know yet what will come out of it,” Hespe said, when asked about the specific impact it might have on New Jersey.

But Hespe said he welcomed the continued call for annual testing while giving each state the flexibility to devise its own, a significant shift from NCLB and even the waiver process that followed under President Obama.

“We are always looking for greater flexibility to create a test that best fits New Jersey,” Hespe said. “But New Jersey has also been committed to annual testing for 20 years, and it has served us well. I’m not sure we want to go away from that.”

Whether a new law would bring changes to the PARCC testing in New Jersey is, of course, yet to be determined, but several states have already moved toward creating hybrid testing that includes some PARCC content but also incorporates more customized approaches.