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Will Every Student Succeed?

America’s new federal education bill has grand aspirations, but will it live up to them?

In December, President Obama signed the new iteration of the 50-year-old Ele­mentary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This legislation, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a bipartisan bill that reforms the unpopular No Child Left Behind act. The White House said in a statement, “The bill rejects the overuse of standardized tests and one-size-fits-all mandates on our schools, ensures that our education system will prepare every child to graduate from high school ready for college and careers, and provides more children access to high-quality state preschool programs.”

Conservatives applaud the bill for shifting more control from the federal government to the states and ending the link between federal funds and adopting specific college- and career-readiness standards, namely the Common Core State Standards. Democrats consider the ESSA’s passage a victory as it embraces key aspects of the Obama administration’s education platform, such as more support for early learning, closing the graduation gap, and promoting college and career readiness.

Under the ESSA, states still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3–8, plus once in high school, and break out the data for whole schools, plus different subgroups of students (English learners, students in special education, racial minorities, those in poverty). However, states have more discretion in setting targets, accountability, and intervention in low-performing schools. In addition to the tests that still have to be a part of state accountability systems, states must incorporate other factors, like school climate, teacher engagement, and advanced coursework.
States and districts will have to use locally developed, evidence-based interventions in the bottom 5% of schools and in schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate. States must also flag schools where subgroup students are chronically struggling.

The federal School Improvement Grants program has been replaced with other resources in the bill that states can use to help schools turn around.

The ESSA contains no provision for federal evaluation of teachers. The performance of each subgroup of students will now have to be measured separately, meaning states can no longer rely solely on “supersubgroups” (different categories of students lumped together for accountability purposes).

The act combines some 50 programs, some of which have been unfunded for years, into a giant block grant.
For English language learners (ELLs), the main practical difference from NCLB is that states can choose when to test newly arrived ELLs. Schools can include students’ test scores after they have been in the country a year, just like under current law, or alternatively is that during the first year, administrators can choose for test scores not to count toward the school’s rating, though ELLs still need to take both of the assessments and publicly report the results. In the second year, the state has to incorporate ELLs’ results for both reading and math, using some measure of growth. In their third year, the proficiency scores of these newly arrived ELLs are treated like those of any other students.

The compromise shifts accountability for English language learners from Title III (the English-language-acquisition section of the ESEA) to Title I (where the bulk of funds and accountability requirements sit).

The President claimed to be “proud to sign a law that is going to make sure that every student is prepared to succeed in the 21st century” in his official statement, in which he outlined some of the law’s key points: “First, this law focuses on a national goal of ensuring that all of our students graduate prepared for college and future careers. It builds on the reforms that helped us make progress already, holding everybody to high standards for teaching and learning, empowering states and school districts to develop their own strategies for improvement, dedicating resources to our most vulnerable children. Second, this bill makes long-overdue fixes to the last education law, replacing the one-size-fits-all approach to reform with a commitment to provide every student with a well-rounded education. It helps states and districts reduce unnecessary standardized tests. What we want to do is get rid of unnecessary standardized tests so that more teachers can spend time engaging in student learning while at the same time making sure that parents and teachers have clear information on their children’s academic performance. Number three: we know that the early years can make a huge difference in a child’s life, so this law lays the foundation to expand high-quality preschools, and it creates incentives for innovative approaches for learning and for supporting great teachers. With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will.”

To complement (or temper) the President’s enthusiasm, Language Magazine solicited reactions from other interested parties:

AFT: “It’s a new day in public education. For nearly 15 years, we’ve been treading water as top-down, test-and-sanction-based reforms failed to help all kids succeed. Parents, students, and educators came together with one message: ‘Enough with the testing fixation. Let’s bring back the joy of learning.’ Legislators on both sides of the aisle listened, worked with one another, and delivered.

“This law will usher in the most sweeping, positive changes to public education we’ve seen in two decades. It keeps the best of the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, targeting funding to support the disadvantaged schools and children who need it most. It significantly reduces the stakes and the amount of testing. It ensures that the federal government can no longer require these tests as part of teacher evaluation. And it makes public education a joint responsibility.

“Our work is only beginning, and our members are ready to roll up their sleeves at the state level, partner with community, and send the message that the policies of No Child Left Behind, waivers, and Race to the Top should be abandoned, not replicated.”

In reference to the elimination of the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on standardized tests: “We will continue to be vigilant as work shifts to the states to fix accountability systems and develop teacher-evaluation systems that are fair and aimed at improving and supporting good instruction.”

Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers

ALA: “We are just so pleased. School libraries and school librarians are really recognized as critical education partners in this bill.”

Sari Feldman, 2015–16 president of the American Library Association

TESOL: “The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in the U.S. House of Representatives is a major step forward in bringing significant changes to public education in the U.S. TESOL International Association is encouraged that this effort to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) keeps a strong focus on supporting the needs of ELLs and is moving forward in a bipartisan manner.”

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association

NCLR: “Over the past year, we worked closely with our national network of affiliates and partners to make sure this law kept its civil rights promise to protect Latinos and English learners, and that states were held accountable for the education performance of students. There is a lot at stake for students of color in this new law, particularly Latino students, who comprise one in every four children in U.S. public schools, and English learners (ELs), who make up nearly 10% of all K­–12 enrollments. The new law includes a number of positive approaches to ensure the academic success of ELs: the Every Student Succeeds Act requires the inclusion of ELs in a state’s accountability system, includes reporting on ELs with disabilities and long-term ELs, and also creates standardized entrance and exit procedures for ELs that will ensure that ELs receive continuity of services regardless of their zip codes. The law, however, leaves a lot of discretion at the state and local level to determine what must happen when groups of students are consistently underperforming. NCLR will work with our affiliates to ensure effective advocacy to ensure our must vulnerable children are succeeding.”

Peggy McLeod, deputy VP, education and workforce development, National Council of La Raza

JNCL-NCLIS: “While NCLIS is disappointed with the elimination of the Foreign Lang­uage Assistance Program (FLAP), ESSA does provide opportunities for funding for the foreign-language community. It is clear from the elimination of other discipline-specific programs that had been authorized alongside FLAP under NCLB that the federal government’s role in K­–12 education had been moving toward support of a ‘well-rounded’ curriculum. The inclusion of foreign languages in this definition offers a wider variety of opportunities to receive funding than were available under NCLB. With authority having been restored to the state and local education agencies, funding decisions have been devolved to the state and local level. The most notable implication of this is that the foreign-language community will need to work closely with state and local education agencies to ensure that world languages are represented among the other disciplines competing for these funds. It also necessitates work at the national level through the Department of Education to advocate that foreign languages remain a priority in the regulations to be developed by the department. The grassroots support for Seals of Biliteracy and dual-language immersion at the state and local levels will prove instrumental in both regards. NCLIS is encouraged by the inclusion of foreign languages in the definition of a well-rounded education and will continue to work with its member organizations and partners to facilitate cooperation between state and local foreign-language communities, and with the Department of Education on promoting world languages in ESSA.”

Joint National Committee for Languages–National Council for Languages and International Studies

Testing All The Time

The new education law, the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” appears to us to be part of a movement that may increase testing far more than ever and drastically narrow the curriculum—this will come in the form of Competency-Based Education (CBE). As described in a recent paper from the National Governors Assocation, CBE is course-work based on the common core, provided by and designed by commercial publishers, and delivered online to schools. Students work individually on computers, and are allowed to move from module to module only when they have “mastered” the current module. Mastery is determined by passing a test, also delivered online.

CBE modules present skills and content knowledge as objectives that are “clear” and “measurable” (p. 3), so the modules only cover material that lends itself to straight-forward testing. This severely limits what can be included. Students take the tests when they feel they are ready.

Demonstrated competence via these online courses will determine student success, teacher ratings, and the ranking of the school. Thus, students will be in a perpetual cycle of working through packaged programs and being tested on their content. This could translate into test prep and testing all the time, with end-of-module tests perhaps even daily.

The new education law and CBE
The new education law is an important part of making all this happen. Sections 1201 and 1204 announce grants for “innovative assessments” and explicitly mention competency-based education. Section 1204 discusses “computer-adaptive” assessments “that emphasize the mastery of standards and aligned competencies in a competency-based education model…” To show that CBE is not just a supplement but is core, applicants for grants are required to include a plan “to transition to full statewide use of the innovative assessment system.”

The Lack of Research
The following statement about CBE is from the National Governors Association’s paper, a document that aggressively promotes CBE: “Although an emerging research base suggests that CBE is a promising model, it includes only a few rigorous evaluations and analyses of current and ongoing CBE pilots and similar programs” (p. 6). Despite this admitted gap, “Efforts to start transitioning to CBE systems have begun in both K–12 and higher education through discussions at the federal, state, and local levels” (p. 4). And, we might add, these efforts are supported by the new education law.

President Obama’s recent call for a limit on standardized testing may simply be a convenient first step toward something much worse than end-of-the-year testing: testing all the time, which makes end-of-the-year testing obsolete. It is interesting that the President’s announcement took place on October 25, 2015, the National Governors Association’s position paper on CBE is dated from October 2015, and the new education law was signed by the President on December 10, 2015—all very close in time.

Paying for the New Technology
It has not escaped our notice that CBE will reduce the role of teachers. This might be deliberate, freeing up funds for more spending on technology and greater profits for the technology industry—the industry that will supply the computers, the software, the hardware, the content of the modules, and, of course, the tests.

The new education law greatly facilitates the introduction of CBE, a move that will limit what is taught to easily testable facts and concepts. The new law is considered by many to signal a reduction in testing, but its support for competency-based education promises to make the current testing burden, already the heaviest in the history of the planet, much much worse, as well as making corporate profits much much higher.

Morna McDermott and Peggy Robertson are among the founders of the national opt-out (refuse the test) movement ( Stephen Krashen will be a keynote speaker at the 2016 United Opt Out conference in Philadelphia, February 26–28.

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