Annual testing is federal law, but not all states follow it. Using test scores as part of teacher evaluations is the law, but not all states use scores this way. The basic question is: Who is in charge of education, the states or the federal government? Where is the line when federal support becomes federal intervention?
Can states opt out of federal testing and teacher evaluation mandates? This really is a tricky question.
Who is in charge of educational reform?
Federal education law is based on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) called No Child Left Behind in the 2001 version, and the Obama administration’s program Race to the Top (RTTT). NCLB requires annual testing, identification of failing schools, and annual yearly progress (AYP) measurement with all children required to achieve proficiency by 2013. School grades were a Florida initiative launched in 2001 to rate schools based on the achievement scores of students. Race to the Top added national standards and tests (Common Core), tying teacher evaluations to test scores, data collection systems, School Improvement Grants (SIG) for failing schools, and support for charter schools. As incentives to participate in RTTT, states were granted waivers from NCLB requirements if they implemented RTT. States were given flexibility to use funds in different ways. The federal government and private foundations funded RTTT program development, but state funds were used to implement programs. Cost became an issue, and states began to look at the legal system for resolution.
A legal controversy over federal role in education erupted.
Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution: If federal funds are merely an inducement to meet certain conditions, the federal government may intrude on areas generally reserved to the states. The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government may use the spending clause if the provision is in the general interest and is sufficiently clear to enable states to decide whether or not to participate. States contend that NCLB requires billions of dollars in unfunded mandates to improve education and relies on annual test scores to evaluate their impact.
Race to the Top is now in disarray.
Even though most states initially agreed to implement Common Core standards that focused on critical thinking and problem solving skills, four did not: Texas, Nebraska, and Alaska. Oklahoma did not, then did, and in 2014 dropped out. As the controversy over the standards grew, Indiana and South Carolina also withdrew. Some states like Florida, for example, changed some standards and renamed theirs as the Florida Standards. Louisiana’s governor filed a lawsuit over Common Core standards.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education announced competitive grants totaling four billion dollars to implement Race to the Top programs. Participating states would receive waivers from the NCLB proficiency requirements if they participated in RTTT. If they did not, there was the possibility that other federal funds would be withheld. Six states received most of the RTTT grant money to develop teacher evaluation and data tracking systems. Florida and New York were awarded $700 million each. California did not receive funding and Texas initially did not apply.
Four states did not receive NCLB waivers: California, Vermont, Montana and North Dakota. Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa were added to this list. Texas, South Dakota, Oregon and Kansas are in ‘at risk’ status of losing their NCLB waivers because they oppose using test scores in teacher evaluation systems tied to test scores. Oklahoma is currently deciding whether or not to withdraw. Washington withdrew entirely from the teacher evaluation systems. It has formally lost its waiver.
The State of California opposed teacher evaluation system requirements. A group of large districts, however, banded together in a separate collaboration called CORE and were granted a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. These districts, representing large groups of minority students and include 1/6 of California’s students. CORE metrics for its School Quality Improvement System do measure academic growth and include them as a component for teacher evaluation.
Vermont decided to test less frequently than required. Then, the state yielded to federal pressure about withholding Title I and other federal funds. They signed on to testing. Now, the State says it will not use the scores. North and South Dakota opted out of requirements to identify low achieving schools. The North Dakota Superintendent was quoted as saying that the federal program was simply ‘exchanging one set of unattainable, unachievable expectations for another’.
Federal Education Policy in Limbo
Congress voted in 2015 to defund RTTT. Evidently, some funding remains for School Improvement Grants that target low income, inner city school districts. Large charter school expansion grants have recently been awarded by the US DOE.
NCLB reauthorization bills requiring annual testing have passed both the House and Senate, but they differ over whether to return control to the states over how test scores are used to identify low achieving schools and teacher evaluations. These differences have not been resolved and the reauthorization has yet to pass.
The Obama administration continues to express concern that more needs to be done to improve inner city schools. How this is to be achieved is at issue:
- Many states are embroiled in lawsuits over funding adequacy and equity for schools.
- Educators decry that teacher evaluation systems utilizing student achievement improvement scores are invalid and ineffective.
- Reward and penalty systems do little to improve achievement and have a negative impact on teacher retention, the curriculum and the students.
- A national parent OPT OUT from the testing movement is growing.
- Community resistance to state and federal programs to take over local school districts is increasing.
While the goals and methods to improve schools are debated, many local districts are making quiet improvements. They are experimenting with magnet schools, community schools, extended days for remedial programs, curriculum innovations, approaches to teacher training and development and school choice alternatives within the public school system.
The federal government, the states and local districts are struggling to find appropriate solutions to complex problems. Some states, like Washington, are finding their own way. Funding systems in many states are either inadequate or unfair and sometimes both; at least twelve states have funding lawsuits. It may be up to our children to resolve these problems as they enter the adult world. We can only hope their newly acquired critical thinking and problem solving skills will serve them well.
The bottom line: NCLB is still law and requires annual testing. The use of scores for teacher evaluation is tied to RTTT and federal funds. RTTT was defunded for the coming year, but remaining are being dispersed. Will the federal government withhold Title I and other funds if states opt out of teacher evaluation programs? It remains to be seen.