ESEA Reauthorization: Some Fixes to the Alexander Draft

Many bloggers have already pronounced their likes and dislikes of Senator Alexander’s  ESEA reauthorization draft, and we would like to add to that discussion.

We liked much of the 2013 “A-Plus” (HR 2456) reauthorization proposal that allowed states to opt out of NCLB and consolidate their federal funding and redirect it to educational priorities set by state rather than federal law, while maintaining accountability and annual disaggregated reporting of student achievement.

We would prefer that states retain annual grade-level testing of each student (which would facilitate evaluation of teacher and school performance), but we believe that federalism requires that each state make that determination for itself. We expect that some states might drop annual grade-level testing (in favor of grade-span testing), but we expect that rivalry with other states and pressure from parents would encourage many states to retain annual grade-level testing for each student.

We can see that the Alexander draft builds on past A-Plus proposals and that the Alexander proposal has many of its suggested changes right. For example, we like the idea that states can still choose to have a uniform statewide assessment system (as they must have today), or that they can choose to approve multiple assessment systems within the state allowing school districts to choose, perhaps, extra rigorous standards associated with high achieving states such as Massachusetts or with International Baccalaureate (IB) as their district standards and aligned assessment. Comparability is a non-issue, as we already have comparability among states via NAEP testing and NAEP-state equating studies that go back ten years, and this approach can be easily extended to multiple assessments within states. This section of the Alexander proposal still needs to be fleshed out, but the current draft’s language requiring that such multiple state assessments “are the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all students” (p. 25, lines 4-6) seem self-defeating and needs to be taken out—after all, assessments can’t be both “multiple” and “same … [for] all students” at the same time.

We like the effort Alexander’s draft makes to prohibit the Secretary from meddling (whether controlling or just “incentivizing”) not only in state curriculum and assessment like before but also in state standards, cutting off the disingenuous excuse Secretary Duncan  used to dictate his preferred curriculum and assessment to states under the guise of peddling “only” standards. We feel, however, that this prohibition is currently present in the draft in varying forms in different sections, potentially contributing to confusion. We believe that using a largely uniform prohibition language in different sections and—perhaps even better—also having a strong and detailed global prohibition on Secretary’s meddling in the General Provision (Title IX) of the bill, similarly to what the Roberts draft suggests, is a necessary improvement.

When it comes to student data protection, the draft takes away the authority of the Secretary to “require the collection, publication, or transmission to the Department of individual student data that is not expressly required to be collected under this Act.” (p. 11, lines 7-10). This is a good beginning, but insufficient. ESEA reauthorization should not only prohibit the Secretary from requiring individual level student data from the states, but it should also prohibit him from requiring it from contractors and grantees, or directly from school districts bypassing the states. Moreover, not only should the secretary be prohibited from requiring such data, but he should be prohibited from possessing individual student level data—there is absolutely no reason for the U.S. Department of Education to ever possess it, even if given voluntarily. Finally, this prohibition should be written into the General Provisions title of the bill, rather than be attached to a particular section of Title I.

Finally, we believe that one of the most damaging elements of the Common Core and the recent federal intrusion into states education was the re-definition of the high school as a pseudo “college prep” factory. Casting high school in this way not only demeans those who choose a trade over college, but also creates an impossible tension between true college readiness — which currently is acquired by only roughly one-third of the student cohort — and the political impossibility of disallowing two-thirds of the students from graduating high school. This goal gave rise to the fake Common Core “college-readiness” that is, at best, adequate for community colleges, yet endangers flooding four-year colleges with unprepared students who are being misleadingly labeled as “college ready.” Alexander’s draft, to its credit, avoids mentioning college-readiness in its body, yet its name still carries the remains of this wrong-headed idea: “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.” Yes, we realize that “career” also appears in the name (as it appeared in the Common Core), yet 100% of the focus turned to be on the “college” part. Changing the bill name would go a long way to defuse this dangerous concept of “high schools as exclusively a college-prep factory” that was introduced to our society without the broad and serious public debate it deserves.

– Ze’ev Wurman and Williamson M. Evers

Ze’ev Wurman was a senior adviser on policy in the U.S. Department of Education, 2007-2009.  Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and was U.S assistant secretary of education for planning, evaluation and policy development, 2007-2009.


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