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Revising the No Child Left Behind Act: Issue by Issue

The U.S. Senate has voted to pass a bipartisan bill to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which hasn't gotten a facelift since 2002, when then-President George W. Bush signed the law's current version, the No Child Left Behind Act. Now the legislation will have to go to conference with a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month.

And lawmakers have a lot of key issues to discuss—including whether the updated law should include a preschool program, whether states should be able to allow federal funding to follow students to the school of their choice, and just how states should measure school performance.

How are the bills different from each other? And how do they compare to the existing version of the law, as well as the Obama administration's NCLB waivers, which are currently in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia?

We've got your cheat sheet right here. 

Testing

No Child Left Behind Act: States must test students in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school, in reading and math, plus science in certain grade spans. And they must make the results public, and include data to show how different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, are doing relative to other kids. Districts can offer local assessments in place of state tests. But they would have to prove the tests are comparable, which is a tough bar to jump over. In fact, no state was able to meet it, even though Nebraska tried. Ninety-five percent of students must participate in tests, or schools will be considered as not meeting achievement targets.

Waivers: As under NCLB, states must test students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school, plus science in certain grade spans. They must make the results public, and include data to show how different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, are doing relative to other students. States can offer local assessments instead of state tests, as long as they prove the tests are comparable. New Hampshire recently got permission to try this, and other states have expressed interest. The department must sign off on local testing pilots, however, and so far, the Obama administration has had a high bar. As under current law, 95 percent of students must participate in tests, or schools will be considered as not meeting achievement targets. That's been an issue in the face of the testing opt-out movement. 

House bill: (aka "the Student Success Act") States must test students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school, plus science in certain grade spans. They must make the results public, and provide data to show how different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, are doing relative to other students. States could allow districts to offer local assessments instead of state tests, as long as the results are comparable to state assessments. The local tests would have to be included in the state's plan for using federal Title I money for low-income students, which requires approval from the U.S. Department of Education. But, importantly, states wouldn't have to get express permission from the federal government to offer local tests. And parents could decide to opt their children out of tests without any penalties for their schools. The bill also encourages states and districts to take a look at the number of tests they require and get rid of any assessments that are duplicative or low-quality. 

Senate bill: (aka "the Every Child Achieves Act") States must test students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school, plus science in certain grade spans. They must make the results public, and provide data to show different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, are doing relative to other students. There's room for local testing too—up to five states could get permission from the U.S. Department of Education to try out new forms of assessments, such as competency-based or performance assessments in selected school districts, with the goal of eventually taking the new system statewide. The bill also encourages states and districts to take a look at the number of tests they require and get rid of any assessments that are duplicative or low-quality. 

Accountability

No Child Left Behind Act: States must set annual goals for student achievement, with the ultimate aim of bringing every student to the proficiency level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. States were required to set smaller, annual student achievement goals, both for particular subgroups of students—such as English-language learners and students in special education—,and for the student population as a whole. Schools that fell behind on these goals were considered as not making "adequate yearly progress," or AYP. The 2013-14 proficiency deadline turned out to be unrealistic. By 2015, no state had gotten all of its students over that bar.

Waivers: States were allowed to get out of AYP and the 2013-14 deadline for getting all students to proficiency—as long as they came up with another ambitious goal, approved by the Education Department. The waivers gave states three options: reduce the achievement gap between subgroups of at-risk students and all students by half within six years; achieve 100 percent proficiency for all subgroups by 2020; or come up with some "other," but still very rigorous, state-designed method. (More here.) States had to include the results of reading and math tests in their accountability systems, but they could also bring in other factors, such as Advanced Placement course-taking and even student surveys and school climate. Not many states took the department up on that flexibility, however.

House bill: As under waivers, states would be allowed to get out AYP and the 2013-14 proficiency goal and develop their own accountability systems. But, even more so than under waivers, states would have a lot of running room when it comes to what these accountability systems would look like, including whether or not to include student growth on standardized tests as a factor. State systems would have to consider overall school performance, and the performance of particular subgroups (such as English-language learners and racial minorities). Other than that, there wouldn't be many restrictions. 

Senate bill: As under waivers, states would be allowed to get out of AYP and the 2013-14 proficiency goal and develop their own accountability systems. State test results would have to figure into these systems, but states could decide how much weight to give to them. States would also have to factor high school graduation rates and English-language proficiency into their accountability systems. And they could include other measures that they think are appropriate, such as "grit." States would also have to set goals for student achievement, but there wouldn't be any pre-prescribed federal options, like there are under waivers.

Standards

No Child Left Behind Act: States must set "challenging" academic standards and measure students progress toward meeting them.  

Waivers: States have to adopt standards that will prepare students for higher education and the workforce. States can either choose to go with the Common Core State Standards, or they can develop their own standards, as long as state institutions of higher education agree that the standards are rigorous enough to get students ready for college and career. 

House bill: States must set challenging academic standards in reading and math. The U.S. Secretary of Education is prohibited from "coercing" a state to adopt a particular set of standards, including the common-core standards. And the bill includes language making it clear that states can ditch the Common Core standards, with no penalties. 

Senate bill: States have to set challenging academic standards in reading and math. The U.S. Secretary of Education is prohibited from using federal funding to entice states to adopt a particular set of standards, including the common-core standards.

Teacher Quality

No Child Left Behind Act: States have to ensure that all teachers are "highly qualified," which generally means that they have a bachelor's degree in the subject they are teaching and state certification. States are also supposed to ensure that "highly qualified' teachers are evenly distributed among schools with high concentrations of poverty and wealthier schools—but that provision hasn't really been enforced.

Waivers: Districts that don't meet the requirements for highly qualified teachers can get out of developing plans to fix this, as long as the state begins implementing a teacher evaluation system that takes student outcomes on state tests into account. These evaluation systems have to "meaningfully differentiate" among teachers, including at least three different levels of performance. This has proved to be the toughest area of waiver implementation for most states. 

House bill: States can use federal teacher-quality funding to set up teacher evaluations if they want to, but it's not a requirement. The bill gets rid of the NCLB law's "highly qualified" teacher requirements and consolidates other teacher quality programs.

Senate bill: States can use federal funding to develop teacher evaluation systems, but it's not a requirement. And the bill eliminates the definition of "highly qualified teacher" and instead lets states decide what constitutes teacher quality. States would still have to tackle equitable teacher distribution, though, which has been a tough nut to crack.

Low-Performing Schools

No Child Left Behind Act: Schools that continually fail to meet achievement targets—either for the student population as a whole or particular subgroups of kids—face increasingly serious sanctions, including a requirement to offer school choice and free tutoring. Schools that underperform for years could face state takeover and be shut down, turned into charters, or subjected to other serious intervention. 

Waivers:  States must identify 15 percent of their schools for significant interventions. The bottom 5 percent of schools are designated as "priority" schools and have to put in place dramatic turnaround strategies, such as extending learning time, getting rid of half the staff, removing the principal, and revamping instruction to focus heavily on student data. States can come up with their own interventions—with secretarial approval—for another 10 percent of "focus" schools, including schools with big achievement gaps, low graduation rates and other problems.

House bill: The bill would get rid of the School Improvement Grant program, which offers formula grants to states to fix up low-performing schools. Instead, states would set aside 7 percent of their own Title I money for school improvement. States would have to intervene in Title I schools that aren't performing well, but the bill doesn't tell them how to do so, or how many schools to try to fix at a time. 

Senate bill: The bill gets rid of the School Improvement Grant program, but includes other federal funding directed at low-performing schools. School districts would be in charge of figuring out how to fix those schools, with help from states. States would have to monitor district turnarounds, and step in if low-performing schools aren't getting any better. But the federal government would be prohibited from telling states or districts how to fix struggling schools, as the Obama administration has under its School Improvement Grant program.

School Choice 

No Child Left Behind Act: Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress under the law for two years in a row must allow students to transfer to a better-performing school. After three years, they must offer free tutoring. And districts have to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds for disadvantaged students to pay for these fixes.

Waivers: States can elect to continue offering students the opportunity to transfer to a better-performing school, but they don't have to. By and large, waiver states chose not to continue with choice and free tutoring.

House bill: States can choose to offer school choice programs using Title I funding for disadvantaged students. And the bill includes "Title I portability," which means federal funding for poor students could follow children to any public school, but not a private school. States would have to set aside 3 percent of their Title I funds for a competitive-grant program that would allow districts to offer school choice or free tutoring. 

Senate bill: States can allow students in low-performing schools to transfer to a better-performing school, but it's not a must.

Funding Provisions

No Child Left Behind Act: States have to keep their own spending to a certain level in order to tap federal funds (this is called "maintenance of effort.") And federal money can't replace state and local dollars. If 40 percent of a school's population is in poverty, the school can use federal Title I money with all its students. Otherwise, Title I funds have to be targeted to low-income students who at risk of struggling academically.  

Waivers: Schools that are designated as low-performing can use federal Title I funds for the disadvantaged with all their students—even if less than 40 percent of the students are in poverty.

House bill: The bill would repeal maintenance of effort, which calls for states and districts to keep up their own spending at a certain level in order to tap federal funds. But it would keep the "supplement-not-supplant" rule, which essentially says that federal funds can't replace state and local dollars. And it would stick with current law when it comes to schoolwide Title I programs. The measure makes a tiny tweak to the Title I formula, but stops short of sweeping changes to how the dollars are distributed. 

Senate bill: Importantly, the bill would change the formula for distributing Title I dollars for disadvantaged kids, so that there's less of an emphasis on population, and more on poverty. The changes wouldn't kick in until the Title I program, currently funded at more than $14 billion, reaches $17 billion. That could be awhile from now. Unlike the House measure, the bill would keep in place "maintenance of effort," which requires states to keep up their own funding at in order to tap federal Title I funds. But it would give states and school districts more flexibility in how they meet their required level of funding. And, under the legislation, schools that get Title I funds would be required to target them to low-income, academically at-risk students, unless 40 percent of their students are in poverty. 

Federal Programs and Preschool 

No Child Left Behind Act: The law authorizes a wide range of programs, including separate funding streams for disadvantaged students, English-language learners, migrant students, after-school programs, education technology, and other areas. There's no separate funding stream for preschool. 

Waivers: The waivers don't make changes to the number of programs authorized under NCLB.

House bill: The bill would merge programs aimed at migrant students, English-language learners, and neglected and delinquent children with the much larger Title I program for disadvantaged students. Districts could use the funds for any activity allowed under those programs. No money could be transferred out of Title I schools, but funds could go to other low-income schools. And the bill would get rid of, or consolidate, nearly 70 programs, some of which (like the Even Start Family Literacy program) haven't seen a dime of federal funding in years. 

Senate bill: Maintains separate programs for disadvantaged students, migrant kids, English-language learners, and other special populations. The bill would eliminate some federal programs, but it would also create a new preschool program for the first time in ESEA. The program would look a lot like the Obama administration's preschool development grants, so that would be a big win for the administration's legacy. 

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