5 things Rhode Islanders should know about the law replacing No Child Left Behind

The Every Student Succeeds Act could have a significant impact on local classrooms

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Say goodbye to No Child Left Behind and hello to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

In the first major overhaul of the nation’s main federal education law – known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – since 2002, Congress has agreed to revamp the way students and teachers are evaluated while empowering states to have more direct control over school accountability.

So what does it mean for Rhode Island? Here’s an overview.

There are still standardized tests.
Testing isn’t going anywhere. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) still requires states to test students in grades three through eight at least once per year, a policy that was first crafted in 2002 under the No Child Left Behind Act as a way to measure student growth. States are not required to use a certain test, but Rhode Island education officials have generally expressed support for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the exam local students took for the first time last year. (The results showed that about 36% of students were at grade level in English and 25% were on track in math.) As part of an attempt to eliminate over-testing, the law allows states to use federal funds to audit local assessment systems to determine ways to reduce the amount of exams that are given within a school year.

There is no federal mandate on teacher evaluations.
Perhaps the most significant part of the ESSA is that states will no longer be required to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. That doesn’t necessarily mean that states are prohibited from using student performance to assess educators, but it does offer some flexibility from No Child Left Behind. In Rhode Island, teachers are judged on several sets of criteria that include multiple classroom observations, proposed curriculum, professional responsibilities – such as how they work with colleagues and parents – as well as student growth and achievement. Part of student growth and achievement is supposed to be tied to test results – the other part is related to student learning objectives – but the state has put off the exam component for several years. With PARCC now in place, the state will likely need at least two or three years of results before it considers using them to assess teachers. For his part, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner has said he does support using test results as part of teacher evaluations.

States can create accountability systems.
The term “adequate yearly progress” sends shivers down the spines of schools officials in many communities across the state. That was the system created under No Child Left Behind to determine whether schools were actually improving outcomes. And while that policy did help pave the way for school districts to better assess student subgroups – such as English language learners, students with special needs or students living in poverty – it was widely criticized for being overly prescriptive. Now states will be allowed to create their own accountability standards, which could factor in test results, graduation rates and attendance data as well as more subjective indicators such as student engagement. The ESSA still requires the lowest-performing 5% of schools to be subject to state interventions. As it stands now, Rhode Island evaluates all public schools annually based on a variety of performance factors such as student proficiency in math and reading, the achievement gap and graduation rates. Schools are divided into six categories: commended, leading, typical, warning, focus and priority. The state is expected to release the latest round of school rankings early next year.

Rhode Island can set its own standards.
This is similar to accountability, but it’s largely focused on the Common Core State Standards. Remember, the Common Core functions as a set of expectations – not a national curriculum – for what students should have mastered over the course of time at various grade levels (read the ELA standards here and the math standards here). The goal is to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and ready to enter the workforce. But one of the key reasons that Rhode Island signed on to the Common Core in 2010 was because it was part of the state’s application to get a $75-million Race to the Top grant from the Obama administration. Under the new federal law, the government cannot incentivize states to adopt or maintain any set of standards.

Rhode Island’s congressional delegation can take a victory lap. 
From after-school to more funding for libraries, all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation have good reason to pat themselves on the back following passage of the ESSA. Congressman David Cicilline, who made Providence a national leader in after-school programming during his tenure as mayor, successfully fought for a steady stream of funding for after-school as well as policies that require districts to partner with community organizations when applying for federal aid. Congressman James Langevin worked on an amendment that allows states applying for funds under Title I to show how they would use those funds to provide apprenticeships that offer academic credits. U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse – who was probably the most-involved member of the delegation when it came to the ESSA – convinced his colleagues to include more funding for school libraries and media centers. Sen. Jack Reed helped craft a provision that improves environmental education programming.

Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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