The New “No Child Left Behind”: House vs. Senate
September 19, 2015
by Emma Connolly, C’16
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The Act created federal funding to serve low-income students and assist districts with buying textbooks, building schools, and other monetary needs. While the Act has changed through its reauthorizations over time, it serves as the chief legislation governing the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education.
The most recent reauthorization of the ESEA, called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, was passed in 2002 and transformed the federal government ‘s role in public education. The Act ramped up state testing requirements and implemented sanctions for schools that did not make “adequate yearly progress” according to test scores. While controversial, these requirements helped to expose stark achievement gaps between students and schools and fostered dialogue about educational inequity. Since NCLB expired in 2007, Congress has failed to reauthorize the ESEA.
In July, both the House and the Senate passed reauthorizations of the ESEA. The House has passed the Student Success Act, while the Senate has passed the Every Child Achieves Act. In order for the ESEA to be reauthorized, both House and Senate leaders must agree on a single bill. While the two versions contain some similarities, certain policy differences may prove politically difficult to compromise on.
One important similarity between the two bills is that they both preserve the annual testing requirement implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the requirement, students must be tested in reading and math every year in grades 3 through 8 and once during high school. Additionally, science is tested once in elementary, middle, and high school. These annual testing requirements, while often debated, have important implications for how standardized tests are used to evaluate students, educators, and schools. If students are tested every year, evaluation and accountability systems can be based off of measures like “student growth percentiles”, which provide a measure of how much students have improved since the last year compared to peers who scored similarly the previous year. These measures can be used to more fairly evaluate different teachers and schools who serve different student populations. While low-income students typically score lower than more affluent peers in absolute terms, growth measures can be used to observe how educators “stretch” each student over the course of a year, rather than simply taking an absolute measure of how they perform.
Both bills also maintain the NCLB requirement that schools disaggregate testing data for certain subgroups of students, such as students with learning disabilities, minorities, and English Language Learners. This provision has been instrumental in highlighting the large achievement gaps that can exist within schools.
However, the bills also have significant differences. The House bill would allow Title I dollars, the ESEA’s funding for districts with low-income students, to follow low-income students who choose schools in other districts or private schools. Republicans support this measure, called Title I portability, as a method to promote school choice. Democrats contend that it will drain federal funding from low-income districts that depend on it.
The House and Senate versions also differ in their approaches to the recent rise of the opt-out movement, which has encouraged many parents to “opt out” of standardized testing for their children. While the House bill would eliminate the requirement that schools pay fines if they do not test at least 95 percent of their students, the Senate bill does not eliminate the requirement.
More broadly, the conference committee and ultimately, the President, will have to reach a consensus on the role of the federal government in school accountability. Currently, both bills roll back the NCLB measures for progressive sanctions of schools that do not make “adequate yearly progress” in favor of letting states design their own accountability systems. However, Democrats, President Obama, and civil rights groups have urged the importance of policy mechanisms to keep the lowest-performing schools or schools that do not make progress for disadvantaged subgroups of students accountable. Republicans maintain that states should control their own accountability measures.
Effectively revamping the ESEA, the federal government’s primary legislative mechanism for K-12 education intervention, is not only essential for the important goal of closing the achievement gap. In a “flat world,” high standards for education are crucial to the United States’ global economic competitiveness. As the United States continues to rank far behind other economically competitive countries on international tests, it is essential that policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels work toward improved elementary and secondary education.
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