President Barack Obama last month signed a new federal education bill, putting the final nail in the coffin of the previous version of the law, No Child Left Behind, after 14 years of controversy.
The changes could send ripples throughout education systems, including districts in Wright County.
The previous education bill, typically dubbed NCLB, irked many as being too formulaic and one-size-fits all for schools all across the nation. It also carried the expectation that 100 percent of students would be grade level proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, which education experts argued was ideal yet unobtainable. On the positive side, superintendents said, NCLB did succeed at holding school districts’ feet to the fire on improving test scores for minorities and low-income students, since the law mandated that school districts report on how all of their different student populations were scoring on standardized tests and make improvement plans for student populations who were not making adequate yearly progress.
The new bill, named Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA, received strong bi-partisan support in both houses of congress. White House press releases say the new law places limits on the amount of standardized testing administered, brings more power back to states and local school districts, gives states power to decide how to deal with underperforming districts, includes dedicated funding to help states reform these underperforming schools and beefs up funding for pre-k and title 1, among other things.
“It appears there is going to be more state and local control, which is long overdue,” St. Michael-Albertville superintendent Jim Behle said. “Restoring control to state and local school boards, I think, is a positive step.”
“We’ll wait to see what type of local control it results,” he added. “Certainly there will be more state control, but how much of that ends up being local control is yet to be determined as the state develops its plan.”
Limits on standardized testing are something many groups, including the Minnesota state legislature, have called for in recent years, and ESSA does place limits on tests. However, Behle said he believes testing will remain the same in STMA. ESSA still mandates annual reading and math tests for grades 3-8 and in science three different years.
STMA students currently take two types of standardized tests per year. The MCA tests fulfill the district’s accountability requirements to the state, and the NWEA tests are used for many purposes such as guiding instruction, monitoring curriculum and making decisions about individual student learning. Behle said the district would ultimately like to get down to one standardized test that fits both needs, but as of right now they cannot use NWEA for their accountability requirements because the state of Minnesota said that test doesn’t align closely enough to state standards, but the MCA test doesn’t provide the comprehensive growth data like the NWEA. The hope, Behle said, is that the MCA test evolves to include the features of the NWEA test so that the district can use just one standardized test.
One other aspect of ESSA Behle said he is pleased with are the pre-k development grants, which authorizes $250 million annually to states to provide preschool to low and moderate-income students. The new law also said it will contribute more federal money to title 1 grants, which funds reading and math support. In both of these areas, Behle stressed that many details are yet to be determined.
Behle said he thinks it will take two years before the STMA school district will see any changes, since the state government must first pass their own education plans and submit them to the federal government for approval. And since the state of Minnesota had a waiver from the No Child Left Behind program, Behle said he doesn’t expect any dramatic changes to what St. Michael-Albertville schools do on a daily basis. In fact, he said he believes that a number of Minnesota’s accountability pieces have become a part of the new federal law.
“I see the law as a positive step forward,” Behle said. “I think our school board believes that education is something our community feels strongly about, and they feel strongly that it the local school boards and school districts should have more say than what has taken place over the last 14 years. Hopefully we’ll see some more flexibility that we haven’t seen with No Child Left Behind, which was very prescriptive for school districts.”