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Obama and No Child Left Behind

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., released a detailed education plan in New Hampshire this morning. It’s long on detail when it comes to teacher pay, early childhood education, and expanding federal college outreach … but somewhat skimpy when it comes to what is arguably the biggest education question in Congress these days: how states should be held accountable for student progress under a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act. Obama said he wants to “reform” the law and repeats perennial Democratic criticisms about a lack of adequate funding by the Bush administration.

His most interesting proposal calls for helping states expand the use of “real time tests,” aka formative assessments. It’s tough to tell, though, whether Obama would allow states to use these tests for accountability purposes and, if so, to what degree they would “count” towards whether a state makes adequate yearly progress under the law. He also said he would like to consider measures beyond reading and math tests, presumably to demonstrate student progress towards state goals. But he doesn't provide more detail than that.

His only other major idea for adequate yearly progress? It appears to be permitting states to use “growth models,” which track individual student progress, instead of the current “status” models, which compare different cohorts of students. That’s a “me-too” proposal. The Bush administration, which is already permitting nine states to use growth models as part of a pilot project, also endorsed expanding the idea in its reauthorization blueprint, released in January.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the panel's ranking Republican, included a proposal to expand growth models in a draft bill reauthorizing the law, released in August. Even lawmakers who don’t want to see major changes to the school improvement measure, such as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the former chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, are in favor of growth models. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say that, right now, growth models are a given in reauthorization.

But, as an education reporter, I would have a couple more questions for Obama, who sits on the Senate education committee. Should the renewed version of the law keep the 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency? Would he permit states to stagger testing, or continue to test every year from 3rd to 8th grades, and once in high school? Would Obama want more testing at the high school level? Would he favor offering carrots or developing sticks to get states to raise their standards so that they are better aligned with the National Assessment of Educational Progress?

Still, it’s telling that Obama bashed his main rivals for the Democratic nomination--Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina--for not supporting an amendment to NCLB that would have made the law unenforceable if it’s not fully funded. I wonder if that particular criticism of the other two frontrunners will continue to come up on the campaign trail.

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