The Every Student Succeeds Act: An Open Door For New Public School Accountability

The congressional rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) gives Texas an enormous opportunity to recast our public school accountability system into one that better serves students and teachers. We have a chance to leave behind for good the disastrous misuse of standardized testing we’ve endured for some 13 years under NCLB.

Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro
Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro

The new law—named the Every Student Succeeds Act—enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in Congress. It sailed through both chambers and was supported and signed into law by President Obama in December.

Under the law, Texas and other states will no longer be under federal mandates of “adequate yearly progress” that absurdly brand almost every school in the nation as a failure. Nor will Texas be forced to use school “turnaround” models like firing all of a school’s staff, closing campuses or turning neighborhood schools over to charter school operators—all of which have had dismal results in raising the level of student achievement.

In Texas, where more than 60 percent of public school students are economically disadvantaged, efforts to label schools as failures in hopes of shaming or browbeating students, parents and teachers into producing better results have done more harm than good. Assigning a bad grade to a school may stigmatize students and teachers but does absolutely nothing to address the underlying challenges students face.

Instead, with the new law, Texas could give priority to assisting struggling students with the proven success of the Community Schools model, which shifts how we think about schools and the way we educate children. Services provided at these schools reflect the specific needs identified by parents, teachers, and community stakeholders. These may include: academic programs like tutoring, enrichment activities, early-college-start programs; medical services like vision, dental, nutrition and mental health; and programs for parents like adult education, ESL classes, housing assistance, and job training.

Yes, critics of the new Every Student Succeeds Act who are tired of overtesting our students will bemoan that it still requires all students in grades 3 through 8 to be tested every year, and high school students at least once, and that those tests must play a role in defining academic proficiency. But the bill also authorizes states to use a variety of alternative assessments to gauge academic success. Those alternative measures could include successful completion of advanced coursework, as well as portfolios and performance tasks to demonstrate achievement.

Diehard defenders of our current testing system likely will claim that we are dumbing down education. But the tide is against them as more and more Texans and their elected leaders question the validity of standardized tests and recognize they have been misused.

The Every Student Succeeds Act also prohibits the federal government from requiring teacher evaluations to be based on their students’ standardized test scores—a misuse of testing proven to yield erroneous high-stakes decisions on teacher employment and compensation.

The U.S. Department of Education’s insistence on forcing states to adopt this model—or face sanctions and possible loss of federal funding—produced an even greater overemphasis on teaching to the test.

Texas legislators wisely eschewed giving our commissioner of education the authority to mandate these evaluation requirements in Texas school districts, and that led to an ongoing battle with the feds. Now, with the new law’s passage, that issue will be moot.

In November, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced appointments to the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, which will study and make recommendations for changes in the state’s testing and accountability system. The commission’s report is due by September 1, 2016, and provides a vehicle for all of us to use to ensure that Texas turns away from the ill-conceived path of NCLB.

The Every Student Succeeds Act won’t give us an entirely blank canvas to redesign our failed accountability system, but
it will give Texas plenty of flexibility to create something that focuses resources on struggling students instead of labeling them failures and prescribing punishments.

NCLB’s demise is long overdue and will be the first step in giving Texas teachers, students and parents a voice in shaping the “next generation” of accountability.