essa watch

No Child Left Behind is dead. But have states learned from it?

PHOTO: Paul Morse/White House
President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002 at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act won bipartisan support from a famously polarized Congress in 2015, it was less a sign of the two parties’ ability to work together than an indictment of what they were replacing: No Child Left Behind.

NCLB had grown increasingly unpopular, blamed for setting impossible-to-reach goals, inciting test-prep frenzy, and unfairly targeting high-poverty schools. (The law has defenders, too, who point to evidence that it increased student achievement in math and provided important new breakdowns of performance data by race.)

ESSA gave states a chance to start fresh. To date, 16 states and Washington, DC have submitted their plans to implement the law; one plan, Delaware’s, has been approved by the Department of Education.

With some plans in hand, it’s worth asking: Are states really changing course? Are they learning from what many viewed as the problematic aspects of the law ESSA replaced?

Here are some of the sharpest criticisms levied at No Child Left Behind — and what we know about whether states are now planning to go in a different direction.

Criticism #1: States put too much focus on testing.

No Child Left Behind became closely associated with high-stakes testing. ESSA continues to require annual testing in grades three through eight, but allows states to use metrics other than test scores in their plans for evaluating schools.

Indeed, every state that has submitted a plan so far has added — or plans to add — at least one additional measure. The most popular has been chronic absenteeism.

“States are broadening their accountability systems beyond reading and math,” according to a review of state plans by Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm generally aligned with the education reform movement. “Most states added science and a more accurate measure of student attendance, not to mention indicators measuring physical education, art, and school climate.”

But, particularly in elementary and middle school, it remains true that test scores will be the major driver of which schools are deemed low-performing.

That’s partially because the law requires “much greater” weight to be placed on test scores — and on graduation rates for high schools — than on non-academic measures like absenteeism or student engagement.

Still, states have interpreted that in different ways. Delaware’s system will base 70 percent of its ratings for elementary and middle schools on state tests. In Louisiana, 75 percent of scores for elementary schools will be determined by state math and English tests and 25 percent will come from science and social studies exams. (Eventually, Louisiana plans to add “access to a well-rounded curriculum” as a measure, though it will only account for 5 percent.)

Other states are making greater efforts to scale back testing. In Maryland, according to a draft plan, only 45 percent of elementary-school scores will be based on state tests though it remains to be seen whether the feds will approve this approach.  

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

Criticism #2: Schools serving lots of poor students were unfairly penalized.

No Child Left Behind used student proficiency to measure schools — and one all-but-inevitable consequence is that school ratings are tightly associated with poverty.

A number of researchers have argued that this approach unfairly penalizes schools for the students they serve and deters teachers from working in those schools. Certain civil rights groups, though, say this method is important in order to maintain high standards and identify schools that need the most help.

Under ESSA, this positive correlation is likely to remain. High-poverty schools will probably still be far more likely to be identified as low-performing, since states, as required by the statute, will continue to use proficiency or overall performance.

Most states also plan to use measures of student growth, which are less tightly associated with poverty. But even when it comes to growth, a number of states are using hybrid approaches that don’t break the link between performance and poverty. Other common indicators, like chronic absenteeism and high school graduation rates, are also tightly related to student income.

A review by the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, found that only a handful of states would likely be fair to high-poverty schools. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, came to a similar conclusion.

“ESSA perpetuates long-standing measurement problems that were institutionalized under No Child Left Behind,” Di Carlo wrote. “The ongoing failure to distinguish between student and school performance continue to dominate accountability policy to this day.”

Criticism #3: Schools were pushed to focus on kids near the proficiency bar and ignore others.

Another problem many identified under No Child Left Behind was that proficiency created an all-or-nothing definition of academic performance — that is, a school was penalized if a student fell short of the proficiency bar by a single question, yet didn’t get extra credit for those who scored far above proficiency. In other words, schools had less incentive to help kids far above and far below proficiency.

A number of states seem to have taken this to heart. The Fordham Institute report gave eight out of 16 states a strong rating in whether there are incentives to “focus on all students.”

The percentage of school ratings that are based on measures seen as likely to encourage a focus on all students, based on states’ ESSA plans. (Fordham Institute)

To do that, some state plans emphasize student growth or judge schools based on average overall test scores. Several states plan to use those measures for a majority of their elementary and middle school ratings. 

Still, proficiency continues to play a major role in many state plans. Moreover, the use of chronic absenteeism risks replicating the problem: schools will have an incentive to focus on kids just short of the bar to be deemed chronically absent (often 15 days out of school).

That said, there remains significant debate about whether this downside actually exists. Although older research on accountability systems in Chicago and Texas showed that teachers focused more on “bubble kids” — that is, those near proficiency — a study of several states during the NCLB era did not find evidence of this.

Criticism #4: States didn’t do a good job helping low-performing schools improve.

The mission of NCLB — and now ESSA — was to identify schools that need help, incentivize them to improve, and if that doesn’t work, require states to intervene. Perhaps the most troubling legacy of No Child Left Behind, as well as the Obama-era school turnaround program, is what we didn’t learn: what interventions truly improve a struggling school.

States have tried a variety of strategies — including improving support for teachers, adding social services, closure, and conversion to charters — and have found mixed success. (There is some evidence that dismissal of a critical mass of teachers and the principal, combined with hiring flexibility and additional resources, is a promising approach.)

Perhaps because the research is so inconclusive — as well as due to political considerations — many states have been vague about how they plan to intervene in schools in the future.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to design their own school improvement strategies, the state produced plans that are mostly vague and non-specific on how they will support low-performing schools,” according to the review by Bellwether.

One exception, the report notes, is New Mexico, which created a menu of specific options — including closure, charter takeover, or significant restructuring — for schools that are persistent low-performing. This is similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program, which produced inconsistent results.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.