It’s certainly been a long time coming. The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, was signed into law last week by President Obama.
The long-awaited replacement of George W. Bush’s unpopular No Child Left Behind still requires annual testing, but it lets states and districts control many decisions about how to use those test results. It also reworks many aspects of federal involvement in education — including teacher preparation, special education, teaching English-language learners and academic standards.
The new law itself may not “solve” any issues in education. Instead, as the new law gives states more control over education matters, how it’s rolled out could produce varied effects in individual states.
It’s very early on, but here are six things to keep an eye on in Massachusetts — things that will, won’t or might change:
1) Teacher Evaluations
The feds will take a major step back from their role in teacher evaluations. This is one of the biggest changes under the new law.
The law eliminates the federal requirement to base teacher evaluations on students’ standardized test scores. Instead, it lets individual states decide whether they’d like to continue the practice.
The Massachusetts guidelines on teacher assessment, released in April, require districts to use statewide assessments (when available) as one measure for evaluating teachers. State officials say it’s unlikely they’ll change that. So while it’s possible, don’t expect to see student test scores dropped from teacher evaluations any time soon.
The new law changes the $2.3 billion state teacher-quality grants program, usually called Title II. The program is intended to provide funds for teacher and principal training and recruiting.
The new formula now counts student poverty more and overall population less when allocating this money, shifting funds to states with swaths of rural poverty. The law will phase in the changes, but over time there’s a definite shift in funding away from some states, including Massachusetts.
The Congressional Research Service estimates Massachusetts will see a decrease of more than $10 million over the next seven years.
Other than that, federal funding doesn’t dramatically change.
There’s no major injection of new education dollars. Many hoped Congress would use the new law to address educational equity issues by expanding Title I, funds for school districts that serve children living in poverty.
The law returns some flexibility and control to states in determining accountability, a change that could mean states will have more responsibilities without additional funding.
“State departments of education are being asked to do a whole lot more than they ever have been before, without particularly more resources,” said Rebecca Lowenhaupt, assistant professor with the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.
The increased responsibilities could open the door for more state partnerships with outside consultants, philanthropic parties and private businesses. We’ll keep an eye on that.
It’s not exactly school funding, but teachers could see their paychecks grow. The new law sets up grants for districts that want to try some teacher-quality improvement measures. One possible measure: teacher performance pay. Again, we’ll be monitoring to see if any districts choose to do this.
3) Amount Of Testing
States still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. So, for the most part, annual testing will remain the same for students.
Schools still need to break out scores for specific student groups, including English-language learners, students with disabilities and racial groups.
But the new law returns to states and districts many decisions about how the tests will be used. Individual states now have a little more breathing room to decide what’s being measured and how to intervene if scores indicate that schools, districts or student groups aren’t measuring up.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni hopes the move from federal to state control will boost the organization’s efforts to pass a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing here.
“It gives us an opportunity at the state level,” said Madeloni. “What’s clear coming down from the ESSA is that the federal government is understanding at some level that they’ve gone too far in terms of high-stakes testing.”
While the amount of annual testing is set to remain the same, the law now provides for states to let districts use nationally recognized tests at the high school level, like the SAT or ACT. We don’t know yet whether Massachusetts will do that.
The process of rating schools has relied heavily on test scores, and here there is a change. The state can now rate schools on measures of quality, beyond just test scores: things like school safety, educator engagement or access to advanced coursework.
4) Special Education
States must still separate and report the performance of students with disabilities on state tests. This gives educators specific information about what is and isn’t working for these students.
So what’s new? The kinds of tests these students will take.
The law establishes a 1 percent cap on the number of students who may take alternative state tests. These are tests designed for students with severe cognitive disabilities, who may not be fit to take standard state exams.
The federal law also says that taking alternative assessments should not preclude a student from attempting to get a regular high school diploma. Still, many students with significant cognitive disabilities often receive alternative diplomas or certificates.
Kathleen Boundy, Center for Law and Education co-director, says the new cap could stop students from getting unnecessarily tracked out of receiving diplomas.
Under the new law, states must separately report four-year graduation rates for students who get alternative diplomas based on those alternative tests.
“It’s an additional burden on the state, arguably, yes,” said Boundy. “It might be something people might have to be very vigilant about watching, in terms of kids being channeled into that group before they’ve been given the chance to learn to high standards.”
And, as Education Week reports, the new law requires states to specify how they “plan to reduce bullying and harassment, restraint and seclusion, and suspensions and expulsions — all of which disproportionately affect students with disabilities.”
5) Civil Rights
One of the key aspects of No Child Left Behind was the use of standardized tests to highlight achievement gaps among groups. For the first time, schools had to report publicly how different groups compared.
But the law was widely criticized for imposing too many punitive federal consequences for differences in test scores among groups.
With power returning to states, it will now be up to local leaders and state education departments to ensure that students from low-income families, minority students, students in special education and English-language learners get equal access to an equitable education.
It’s also now up to the states to identify and intervene in low-performing schools, which disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color.
Under the new law, English-language proficiency will weigh more heavily in school accountability measures. This means that states must report more on their English-language learners.
Test scores for these students’ first year in school won’t count toward a school’s rating, but you can expect to see English-language learner test scores publicly reported.
Under the new law, states are required to adopt “challenging” academic standards. It’s not clear just what that means, or what those standards are. They’re simply required to be rigorous and to prepare students for life after high school.
This vaguer language could provide an opening for advocates who want Massachusetts to back away from Common Core standards. A ballot initiative is already under way that would ask voters to reject the Common Core and restore the state’s previous standards.
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, has consistently supported Common Core, which the state adopted in 2010.
“To move backwards to what existed before 2010 would be a huge disservice to our educators,” Chester told WBUR earlier this year. “Our teachers have been at work for five years now, our teachers and administrators, in upgrading their curriculum and aligning their courses of study.”
Other states that have moved away from the Common Core have often stuck with relatively similar standards under a different name.