Obama signs law reducing federal role in education

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President Barack Obama signs the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” a major education law setting U.S. public schools on a new course of accountability, Thursday, in Washington. The law will change the way teachers are evaluated and how the poorest performing schools are pushed to improve.

President Barack Obama on Thursday signed a bipartisan law that supporters of the legislation say reduces federal regulation of K-12 education, including by eliminating mandates that teacher evaluations factor in students’ standardized test scores and increasing flexibility in how states hold schools accountable.

The Every Student Succeeds Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives 359-64 last week, and passed the Senate 85-12 Wednesday. West Virginia’s congressional delegation, with the exception of Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, voted for it. It also received the backing of teachers unions, which oppose having their members’ evaluations based off tests, and other education organizations.

The legislation is an update to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that replaces the most recent version: the much-criticized No Child Left Behind, which former president George W. Bush signed in 2002.

Obama said at a bill signing Thursday that No Child Left Behind had the right goals.

“High standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap, making sure that every child was learning, not just some,” the president said. “But in practice, it often fell short.”

He said the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, which he dubbed a “Christmas miracle,” improves upon the Bush-era iteration while upholding the “core value” of the 1965 original: “The value that says education, the key to economic opportunity, is a civil right.”

A joint statement from 37 civil rights and education groups — including the NAACP, the National Disability Rights Network, Teach For America and United Way Worldwide — said the law is an improvement over both No Child Left Behind and the waivers that the U.S. Department of Education gave to states to escape some of its requirements. The groups said it’s “not the bill we would have written,” but it has provisions “that we believe will help remedy deep-seated disparities in our nation’s schools.”

According to a summary on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s website, the legislation would abandon No Child Left Behind’s mandate that all U.S. schools meet “adequate yearly progress,” replacing it with state-designed accountability systems.

West Virginia — along with over 40 other states, according to the federal education department — already has a No Child Left Behind waiver. The document means it doesn’t have to meet adequate yearly progress, but in exchange the waiver puts other requirements on the state.

Without the waiver, the Mountain State would have had to label as failing all schools where less than almost all of students are meeting “proficiency” on statewide standardized tests given near the end of each year. Statewide, only 27 percent of students scored at least proficient in math last school year, and only 45 percent did so in English language arts.

West Virginia’s waiver will become void Aug. 1.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, according to the House Committee on Education’s summary, would also bar the U.S. education secretary from prescribing specific improvement strategies in struggling schools; allow states and school districts to use federal funds to study their tests to find ones that can be eliminated; allow rural school districts more flexibility in using federal funds; and prevent the federal government from requiring or providing incentives for states to adopt the national Common Core math and English language arts standards or any specific standards.

Under the new law, states will still be required to annually report data on the performance of subgroups of students, including black students and students from low-income families. Also remaining is the requirement to have annual, statewide reading and math tests for students in grades three through eight and once in high school. West Virginia currently goes beyond existing requirements by testing all grades from three through 11.

Also preserved is the requirement for states to give science tests at least three times from grade three through 12. West Virginia has traditionally tested science in grades three through 11, but last school year the state school board approved temporarily reducing the tested grades to just four, six and 10. It’s considering voting this month to make that reduction permanent, alongside a total erasure of required social studies standardized tests.

The bill would also allow states to replace their high school statewide standardized test with the ACT or SAT. Alongside the state school board’s expected changes to its K-12 math and English language arts standards this month — a move education officials have said could possibly push the standards out of alignment with the state’s current Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced tests — State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano has convened a commission to study the tests.

The state Department of Education said the group will consider “all options” for making recommendations on possible changes to standardized testing.

Some say the law’s reduction of federal regulation will allow states and school districts to use their newfound freedom to avoid increasing student achievement. Sandy Kress — Bush’s senior education adviser during the development of No Child Left Behind and a current consultant for the George W. Bush Institute — said the new law has no “bite.”

“The accountability has been shredded,” he said.

Kress said No Child Left Behind, which he noted also passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, sought to strengthen and spread across the country accountability systems states were implementing on their own in the late 1990s. He suggested arguments that the law was overly punitive were overblown, saying it applied pressure to states but gave them a lot of flexibility in responding. And he said its problems could have been fixed when it was up for reauthorization around 2008.

Instead, Kress said Congress waited for years to pass an update as more and more schools were being dubbed failing and the Obama administration was giving waivers from No Child Left Behind to push unpopular ideas, like test-score-based teacher evaluations. “And so you have the momentum to pass a bill like this one,” he said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com,

facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn,

304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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