ESEA – It’s so much more than a test

Whether ESSA is signed into law before the end of the year – or like the release of the Iran hostages in 1981 we have to wait until Arne Duncan officially leaves office – it appears that we will finally see a reauthorization of ESEA.  Much of the coverage of the long-awaited and hotly debated end of NCLB has focused on the accountability and assessment requirements of ESSA; specifically, on identifying the ways in which ESSA requirements differ from those of NCLB – annual testing remains but states will have more control over accountability systems; the waivers are gone but key components of the priority and focus school concepts remain; growth and alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS) which were introduced after NCLB was enacted in 2001 have found their way into ESSA.  Overall, one can conclude that even with the shift of control over accountability systems from the federal government to the states and the much more nebulous statement of goals, test-based accountability remains alive and well under ESSA.

In designing new test-based accountability systems under ESSA, however, we must find a way to reconnect the assessment and accountability requirements with the rest of the law.  Listening to much of the criticism directed at NCLB over the last decade, a person unfamiliar with ESEA might walk away with the impression that the federal government simply implemented testing requirements and expected that schools would improve.  Missing from much of the rancor directed at NCLB and test-based accountability has been even an acknowledgement that ESEA, in general, and Title I, in particular, allocate billions of dollars to fund programs that are intended to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students.

I witnessed the impact of this disconnect firsthand as a delegate to the 2004 Maine State Democratic Convention.  In an awe-inspiring display of the power of the combination of misinformation and a frenzied mob being caught up in the heat of the moment, the delegates blocked any debate on the floor and through a nearly unanimous voice vote raucously adopted an amendment adding the following one-sentence paragraph to the party platform:

The No Child Left Behind Act should be repealed.

Few in the auditorium that afternoon appreciated the tragic irony of the juxtaposition of that line with the opening two paragraphs of the party’s position on education:

Life-long access to education is critical to the well being of our citizens, our economy, and our democracy. Education must begin with early childhood programs, such as Head Start and child development services, that prepare children to learn. We urge free preschool education for all Maine children.

Life-long learning for all requires a strong public education system that provides opportunities for students of all ages throughout the state, including the physically and mentally challenged. We recognize the importance of special education, gifted and talented programs, and multicultural programs, and we support the long overdue full funding of these programs as mandated by state and federal law. We also support increased funding to bring existing schools into compliance with federal and state accessibility mandates. And we recognize the problem of bullying within schools and support providing local school districts with help in developing and implementing anti-bullying policies.

Of course, one could simply accept with bemusement that a bunch of Maine democrats failed to see the connection between the No Child Left Behind Act that they demanded be repealed and the programs they so whole-heartedly endorsed.  After all, over the course of the last decade the Maine Democratic Party has been teetering on the brink of becoming the third party in a two-party system.  However, the thinking exhibited in Maine in 2004 is fairly representative of the debate surrounding ESEA/NCLB, and more important, is also reflected in the accountability systems states have designed to meet ESEA requirements.  In most cases, state test-based accountability systems implemented under NCLB stop at assigning ratings based on an aggregation of status, improvement, and growth indicators derived from school performance on state assessments.  Those accountability systems fail to make a direct connection between school (or student) performance on those assessments and the programs that were funded and implemented to improve that performance.

From the beginning, Title 1 of ESEA included assessment and accountability requirements as a safeguard to ensure that the federal money being allocated to programs to improve the achievement of the disadvantaged was being spent wisely.  In a 1968 study of the implementation of the new law, Bailey and Mosher wrote the following about the law’s accountability requirements:

For various reasons, the evaluation mandate, even if ambiguous and ambitious, was considered not only important, but necessary:

Sec. 205. (a)(5) that effective procedures, including provision for appropriate objective measurements of educational achievement, will be adopted for evaluating at least annually the effectiveness of the programs in meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children.

Major proponent of the provision, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, … regarded it as a protection against the infusion of Title I funds into on-going school programs unlikely to upgrade the achievement of educationally disadvantaged children. (ESEA – The Office of Education Administers a Law)

More than thirty-five years after the original ESEA, a similar connection between funding, programs, and accountability can be seen in various quotes attributed to President Bush in describing the assessment and accountability requirements of NCLB:

For the first time, the federal government basically demanded results in return for money.

That’s why Ted Kennedy and George Miller were very effective.  We didn’t agree on the funding formulas and certain issues, but we did agree on the basics.  And that is, you cannot expect excellence unless you measure.

If you’re going to fund [schools], like we’ve been doing for years, we in the federal government ought to demand accountability, which seems to me a very conservative principle.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the program evaluation perspective to ESEA accountability – the concept that specific programs were being implemented to meet particular goals and it was necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs, including the fidelity of their implementation.  Perhaps NCLB contributed to the disconnect between accountability and programs by separating the consequences of failing to meet accountability targets (e.g., school choice, tutoring, restructuring) from the programs that were being funded.  By not linking the consequences of accountability systems directly to an evaluation of program effectiveness, perhaps NCLB inadvertently fed into the all-too-American predilection for achieving the outcome without changing behaviors (see historical data on weight loss supplements).

In any event, moving forward with ESSA it is important to reestablish the link between inputs and outputs, between the federally funded programs that states and schools are implementing under ESSA and the expected results of those programs.  At a minimum, establishing such a link may force someone to be able to provide a rationale for how the proposed programs are supposed to help produce the desired outcomes.  If we are fortunate, establishing such a link also will reduce the effectiveness of rhetoric that suggests that the federal government and states believe that testing alone will lead to improved achievement.  Ideally, establishing a link between programs and expected outcomes may even lead to a fruitful conversation about what types of outcomes can and should actually be expected from our schools, teachers, and students.

Test scores, or accountability indicators based on test scores, can provide important information about whether the Title I goals “to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps” are being met. Tests and test scores alone, however, can neither achieve those goals nor tell us why/why not states and schools are meeting those goals.   There is a reason why under ESSA, Title I alone allocates more than $15 billion per year to programs and only $378 million per year to state assessments.  Under ESSA, we must commit to doing a better job of evaluating the effectiveness of those programs.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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