The Every Child Achieves Act Continues Test-based Accountability

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

The Senate bill to reauthorize No Child Left Behind (NCLB), titled the Every Child Achieves Act (ECCA), was heard on the Senate floor this past week. Senator Lamar Alexander, a sponsor of the bill, argued that passage of his bill would go a long way towards ending the pain inflicted under NCLB and provide relief from the testing mania that has permeated schools. Yet, the bill does very little to change the current test-based accountability at the state level.  It retains the 17 NCLB mandated annual tests in grades 3-12 and the inclusion of student test performance on state assessments in state accountability systems.

After the last round of annual testing took over 12 hours to administer, concerns over the federally mandated tests (preserved in ECAA) have reach an all-time-high.  In his remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Alexander argued  that the current testing mania isn’t created by the federal requirement to take the tests, which he believes only take two hours out of the school year. The real culprit, he claimed, is NCLB’s requirement that student test scores are used as the basis of state accountability systems; it forces states and schools to over-test students in preparation for the high-stakes assessment. He continued that ECAA would end the test-driven culture caused by NCLB by allowing states to design their own accountability systems, thus relieving the pressure of a single test determining school performance.

The problem with this argument is that since the Obama Administration issued NCLB waivers in 2011, the NCLB accountability system referenced by Sen. Alexander hasn’t been used in 45 states. It is the new accountability system created under the waiver, not NCLB’s, that is currently exacerbating the amount of testing.

Under the waiver, states were allowed to develop “state-designed” accountability systems that included additional indicators, not just student test scores, in determining school performance. The hope was that this would stop the testing mania by relieving the pressure of having a single test score determine the school’s grade. Unfortunately, with these new accountability systems, the amount of instructional time lost to preparing students for state assessments has increased, not decreased, and states are experiencing the longest testing windows in history.

The “state-designed” accountability system prescribed by ECAA and touted by Sen. Alexander is very similar in structure to those required under the waivers; therefore, it is unclear why Sen. Alexander believes things will change.  Although ECAA allows states to use a variety of indicators in their overall state accountability system, such as school climate, attendance rates, etc., there is a catch — a big one.  When it comes to identifying low-performing schools — which is what schools fear the most and what drives test pressure — the state must use the same test-based indicators required under the waiver as a “substantial factor.” The additional indicators Sen. Alexander notes would be part of the state accountability system, but they wouldn’t be determining factors in identifying low-performing schools.

Below is a comparison of the high school indicators required under the waiver and the “substantial factors” required in ECAA:

HIGH SCHOOL INDICATORS UNDER NCLB WAIVERS (current)

  1. Student achievement on state assessments in math and English which includes a measure of student growth (based on state assessments)
  2. High school graduation rates
  3. A measure of College and Career Readiness — on track to graduate prepared for entry-level courses at the state’s public higher education institutions or the workforce with the need for remediation.

HIGH SCHOOL SUBSTANTIAL FACTORS UNDER ECAA (proposed)

  1. Student achievement on state assessments in math and English which includes a measure of student growth (based on state assessments)
  2. High school graduation rates
  3. Progress of students on state assessments necessary “to graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce without the need for postsecondary remediation.” (based on state assessments)

Sen. Alexander doesn’t get it. His bill doesn’t offer states more flexibility where it counts, only more of the same test-driven policies enforced by the USED waivers. Regardless of the additional indicators ECAA would allow states to include in the overall accountability system, student performance on the state assessments will continue to drive how schools are identified as low-performing. 

If this bill were to be implemented, schools, teachers, parents, and students would come to unfortunate realization that nothing has changed; schools would still be tethered to the test. The only difference would be that it is the “state designed” accountability systems- not the U.S Department of Education- that are responsible.  In other words, when the inevitable complaints arise about the poorly constructed accountability systems, the U.S. Department of Education will, disingenuously, disclaim responsibility and leave the states holding the bag.