‘No child left behind’ catches up

February 1, 2016

The new 391-page Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; S.1177), the first major rewrite of federal education law in 14 years, has lists of provisions to impact children in myriad ways, including efforts on safe and healthy schools, many different behavioral issues, early childhood education, and homeless children.

The new 391-page Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; S.1177), the first major rewrite of federal education law in 14 years, has lists of provisions to impact children in myriad ways, including efforts on safe and healthy schools, many different behavioral issues, early childhood education, and homeless children. Signed on December 10, 2015, by President Barack Obama and, in great part, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (H.R.1), the new Act is best known for eliminating some of the “high-stakes” testing requirements and for turning back much of decision-making authority to the states and local agencies.

There is much hope and anxiety about what states will do and how they will be held accountable. Also, there is still a lot of room for the US Department of Education (DoED) to affect the process through the regulations it will write. The DoED has already begun to gather information with public hearings in January.

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Statistics indicate there is much to be concerned about. For example, the National Center for Educational Statistics says 33% of white high school seniors were proficient in mathematics in 2013. That compared with 12% of Hispanic seniors and 7% of black seniors. The gap was also huge for seniors whose parents were high school graduates versus those whose parents were college graduates: 12% versus 38%, respectively. There also were huge disparities in state performance: 34% of Massachusetts students scored proficient compared with 14% in West Virginia.

State control

It’s in that atmosphere that the new law takes major steps to turn back control to the states. It does away with the federal “adequate yearly progress” testing and reporting system and allows state accountability systems to identify struggling schools. States will submit a plan to the DoED, but the federal agency cannot force changes. It may only ensure the plan is consistent with the law.

States will be allowed to use measures of schools’ performance beyond test scores, including student engagement, advanced placement course work, and school climate and safety. The Business Roundtable, among others, expressed concerned that expansion of measures will allow the focus to move too far away from academics.

States will use state-determined methods to identify schools that need support and improvement. They are supposed to improve learning in at least the lowest-performing 5% of schools, public high schools that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students, and schools in which any group of students (such as by race or ethnic group) consistently underperforms according to the state’s measures.

There still must be statewide annual tests in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and there must be science testing 3 times between grades 3 and 12.

However, as the US House Education and the Workforce Committee notes, the ESSA “ensures States are able to choose their challenging academic standards in reading and math aligned to higher education in the State without interference from Washington. The federal government may not mandate or incentivize States to adopt or maintain any particular set of standards, including Common Core.”

The bill calls for “evidence-based” action in schools where students are not learning, but the DoED cannot say what intervention or strategies to use.

Early learning

Beyond sending control to the states, the new law has many provisions that impact children’s health and well-being.

For example, it authorizes competitive “Preschool Development Grants” to help the states with coordination, quality, and access for early childhood education. States are to develop and implement a plan for collaboration among existing early childhood care and education in mixed delivery systems “designed to prepare low-income and disadvantaged children to enter kindergarten.”

The programs also are to encourage partnerships among Head Start providers, state and local governments, Indian tribes, private entities, and local education agencies (LEAs).

However, at the DoED’s first listening session on implementing the law, Thomas Sheridan, Director of Government Affairs for the National Head Start Association, called on the department to also promulgate rules to support early learning throughout major parts of the law. 

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Enrichment grants and health connections

Under the “Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants,” funds will be given to states and local education agencies to increase capacity and achievement. The section emphasizes technology, collaboration, communication, and various academic issues.

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However, it also specifies that part of the funds should be used to “foster safe, healthy, supportive, and drug-free environments.” That may include evidence-based programs “to the extent the State, in consultation with LEAs, determines that such evidence is reasonably available” to target drug use and violence. Among the many substances that may be educated against are electronic cigarettes.

Funds also may be used for school-based mental health services, including those in partnership with public or private mental health or healthcare entities.

Funds may be directed to “high-quality training for school personnel” in issues such as suicide prevention, “trauma-informed practices in classroom management,” and human trafficking.

In addition, in a provision highlighted by a number of civil rights and other groups, funding may be targeted at local plans to reduce exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspensions, aligned with the long-term goal of prison reductions.

The legislation does prohibit, however, that those funds be used for “medical services or drug treatment or rehabilitation, except for integrated student supports, specialized instructional support services, or referral to treatment for impacted students.”

The annual authorization for all the work under Title IV-A, which funds these programs, is about $1.6 billion annually. In reality, it could be less, depending on the annual appropriations.

Cognitive disabilities testing

States may have alternative standards for students with severe cognitive disabilities, but tests based on those standards may not be administered to more than 1% of all students in each subject in the state. States must give extra support and oversight to school districts that administer such tests to more than 1% of students.

Foster children

The Act mandates that when foster children are moved to a new home, they will remain in the same school if it is in their best interest. States are to have a plan for transportation of such children to their schools if necessary.

Homeless children

The ESSA has new provisions focusing on homeless children, including calling for a coordinator in each state to gather and publish information on homeless students, and coordinating with shelters and others helping homeless persons. Local education agencies are to enroll homeless children immediately in schools selected to be in their best interest even if the child is unable to produce records usually required for enrollment, such as academic records, immunization and other health records, or proof of residency. They should be enrolled, the law says, even if they have missed application or enrollment deadlines.

The Congressional Budget Office has said the new ESSA will have no direct impact on spending.

Ms Foxhall is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She has nothing to disclose in regard to affiliations with or financial interests in any organizations that might have an interest in any part of this article.