An early draft of a Senate committee's sweeping rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act rolls back major accountability provisions of the law's current form, known as No Child Left Behind.
The bill would require states to develop their own standards for student performance with little federal oversight, according to language obtained by The Huffington Post.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, is expected to publicize the committee's finished draft of the bill on Tuesday. The committee will mark up the bill on Oct. 18 before it hits the Senate floor. While various senators have introduced smaller ESEA bills since the law was up for reauthorization in 2007, the Harkin bill is the product of months of negotiations and is the Senate's most comprehensive output to date.
After years of states complaining about the law's onerous reporting and punitive requirements, the draft -- dated Oct. 4 -- amounts to a decreasing federal role in education. Under NCLB, states have to meet rising proficiency targets on math and reading exams, and face increasingly burdensome sanctions if they fail to meet those targets. NCLB requires nearly 100 percent of all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2012.
The Obama administration has argued that this provision has incentivized states to set an extremely low bar for proficiency in anticipation of possible punishments. Instead of NCLB's strict targeting scheme, the new bill would have states define students' mastery of the material with the categories "basic, on-track, and advanced."
"They've gone from the debate over NCLB in terms of the goals being unrealistic, to saying we're not going to require you to have goals at all," said Charlie Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform. "States will probably take advantage of the flexibility to not do much at all. That's the dilemma for us."
A spokesman for the Education Department said he would decline to comment before seeing the final language of the bill. The National Education Association also declined to comment.
Using language reflective of the Obama administration's priorities, the draft of Harkin's bill mandates that states adapt "college and career standards" in math and reading. While states would not be required to prove to the federal Education Department that they are meeting those standards, the Education Department would look at evidence behind the standards themselves.
The draft would require states to use exams that measure individual student achievement and academic growth, and would leave it up to the states to decide whether the exams would be given once a year or several times a year. Tests are mandated at least once between grades 3 and 5, 6 and 9, and 10 and 12.
States' accountability systems would take into account student scores and high school graduation rates for the preparation of publicly-accessible report cards for each school. Instead of NCLB's specific targets, this version of ESEA would only expect "the continuous improvement of all public schools in the state." If states choose to rate schools by the degree to which student test scores have increased instead of the raw number of students who pass the exams, they would have to report their methodology to the federal government.
The secretary of education would use a peer-review process to help states develop accountability plans, and would require states to intervene in 5 percent of their lowest-performing schools and 5 percent of their schools with the largest achievement gaps. The bill would continue to extend all of ESEA's accountability measures to charter schools.
"Federal law is usually the one place where priority is placed on kids whose needs are overlooked at the state and local level," Barone said. "It's not clear that this bill would really do that so much anymore."
It is still unclear what the end game will be for the bill within the House, whose education committee leader Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) has said he is committed to reauthorizing the bill through piecemeal measures. But civil rights groups are already reportedly preparing to protest. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents 210 civil rights groups, sent Harkin and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) a letter in April stressing the importance of accountability.
"The continued commitment of the federal government to equal educational opportunity is more important than ever as states and LEAs face historic budget shortfalls for the foreseeable future," the group wrote.
"Nor can we limit accountability to a small percentage of our schools while ignoring the others, thereby retreating from the long-standing federal role in ensuring that minority students, low-income students, English learners and students with disabilities have access to ... supports that address a range of student needs so that they are better prepared to succeed in the classroom."
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect NCLB's prior coverage of charter schools and the language of Harkin's bill regarding evidence of college and career-ready standards.