By Dennis Pierce
In a vote that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten called “the most positive development we’ve seen in public education policy in years,” the Senate Education Committee on April 16 unanimously approved a bipartisan bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The bill strikes a balance between competing priorities in both political parties. It would scale back testing and give states more flexibility to design their own accountability systems, eliminating the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measure that has vexed many states and schools. But school districts still would have to track the progress of every subgroup.
Students in grades 3-8 would continue to be tested in math and English every year, and they would be tested in these subjects once in high school. They would have to take a science exam three times between grades three and 12, for a total of 17 federally required tests. Although states would have to use this testing data in their accountability systems, it would be left to each state to determine how much weight to give these test scores, compared to other measures of success.
“This should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., in a statement. He and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, collaborated on the bill.
The bill would get rid of federal mandates on teacher evaluations, including the definition of a “highly qualified teacher,” and would let states develop their own evaluation systems. It also would prevent the Education Secretary from requiring states to adopt certain standards in exchange for federal funding, as the Obama administration did in encouraging states to adopt the Common Core as a condition of receiving Race to the Top grants.
The committee spent three days marking up the bill, during which time its members passed 29 of 57 proposed amendments. One of these amendments, called I-TECH, would replace the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program—which hasn’t existed since 2010—with a new federal ed-tech program. Schools would be able to spend half the funding from this new program on equipment and software, while the other half would go toward professional development.
While the committee’s unanimous approval signals widespread agreement on the bill’s broader strokes, it could face a tougher challenge before the full Senate, many observers believe. And if it passes through the Senate, the highly charged atmosphere of the House of Representatives awaits, where a Republican committee passed its own partisan education bill without Democratic input.