So, What Does The New Federal Education Law Mean For Massachusetts?

So, What Does The New Federal Education Law Mean For Massachusetts?

The new federal education law requires annual testing but lets states control many decisions about how those test results may be used. (Mike Groll/AP)

The new federal education law requires annual testing but lets states control many decisions about how to use those test results. (Mike Groll/AP)

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.

2) Funding


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.

6) Standards


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.

  • Ellen Chambers

    What does the new federal law, ESSA, mean for Massachusetts special education? What will be different now that much control has been returned to our state?

    Answer to both questions: Nothing.

    Whether control is in the hands of the federal or state government, nothing will change, because both have a decades long track record of shunning their responsibility to safeguard the educational rights of students with disabilities. I’m not talking about offering safeguards on paper. That’s easy. I’m talking about safeguards that actually have an impact at the Team meeting level, where students with disabilities have been, and will still be, routinely denied the special education services they are legally entitled to receive. Parents will still be on their own when it comes to protecting their child’s rights to appropriate services. And unless they have the money to hire an advocate or attorney to help them do it, they will still face a long, frustrating, emotionally and financially exhausting battle.

    FACT: On the 2014 MCAS only 31% of our students with disabilities were proficient in English Language Arts, compared to 78% of their non-disabled peers. The figures for math were 22% and 69% respectively. A 47 point achievement gap in both subjects. The achievement gaps in 2003 were 43 points and 36 points, respectively. The academic achievement gap between students with and without disabilities has actually grown worse over time. Massachusetts did nothing about this under NCLB, and it won’t do anything differently under ESSA.

    If I sound negative, that’s because what I’ve written here is the truth, and there is no way to sugarcoat that reality.

    The answer to all of this? Parent revolution. And I’m not kidding.

    Ellen M. Chambers, MBA
    Special Education Activist
    SPEDWatch, Inc.
    (978) 433-5983

    • Aptidude

      You mean another parent revolution. I can remember the time before IDEA. As bad as thing are now, at least the public schools are including children with disabilities in their programs. That’s a pretty low bar, I’ll agree, but it’s better than simply being shown the door. Of course, that’s what charter school administrators can effectively do, if they want to.

      • Ellen Chambers

        Yes, another parent revolution. I have great respect for anyone involved in any activism aimed at righting a wrong. But, of course, we must keep going. I know the value of all those who fought before IDEA, to get the school doors to open to our children. But having opened the door, our children are still left dumped on the other side without any real “rights”. (By rights I mean legal protections that are actually enforced.)


        • Aptidude

          Your posts are especially interesting to me, because I deal with educators, many of them who began their careers in the 1970’s, who are concerned about the decline in standards for graduation. I am a strong advocate of making our curriculum accessible to every student, and of differentiating instruction. But if a teacher wants to be obstructionist, they often will get away with it for years. The administrators, however, are under pressure to move students on so they can graduate. The two groups clash: Those who oppose “social promotion” and those who think that holding students back a grade is contrary to good practice. My wife teaches SPED, and has had to deal with teachers over the years who fail to see their responsibility for differentiation and accommodation. They either oppose it on principle or think that they are not required to make the accommodations. It takes a considerable amount of gumption to keep up the pressure on them to do their jobs right.

  • Aptidude

    Teacher evaluations in Mass will remain tied to student test scores. Can we factor in poverty, parental drug abuse, criminal records and malnutrition, too, while we’re at it?

    • jshore

      Unless poverty is factored into teacher evaluations, urban areas will have a very hard time recruiting and keeping people who plan on making teaching a career.