New federal education law could mean changes for NC schools

States would have more say in setting their own paths in public education under a federal bill that would replace the much-criticized No Child Left Behind law.

The U.S House passed the bill last week by a wide margin and with bipartisan support. The U.S. Senate is set to vote later this week, and passage is expected.

The law would still require much of the annual testing established under No Child Left Behind. Students will continue to take annual English and math tests in third through eighth grades, and a science test in elementary school and another in middle school. But states would have the ability to decide how they’ll improve stuggling schools and how to define success. The bill also gives states the option of replacing three standardized high school tests with one test.

“What the new legislation will allow is certain decisions to be made at the state level without having to do something because ‘the federal government requires it,’” said Lou Fabrizio, director of data, research and federal policy for the state Department of Public Instruction.

North Carolina is one of 43 states operating under a waiver of the original law, meaning that it was already free of many of the No Child Left Behind standards and strictures that many found objectionable or impossible to meet. For example, North Carolina has dropped the sanctions prescribed for struggling schools, such as principal removal, that are outlined in the federal law.

Still, the law could mean significant changes for how North Carolina students and schools are viewed by the federal government. As it is now, elementary and middle schools are judged based solely on test scores. Under the proposed law, the state can add factors not related to tests such as school climate or teacher engagement.

“That’s probably one of the bigger changes,” Fabrizio said.

The U.S. Department of Education can no longer require teacher evaluations be based partly on student test scores. North Carolina has an evaluation system that factors in student growth as measured by test results.

Board of Education vice chairman A.L. Collins, a critic of the state practice of linking test scores to teacher evaluations, said the law may give the state the chance to reassess it.

“A teacher evaluation instrument is something that requires constant review and discussion,” he said. “I hope that this will allow that.”

Collins said it’s too soon to know how the law would affect public education.

“We really don’t know what’s in it until it gets out and it’s analyzed and vetted,” he said. “The overall theme is states will have more flexibility.”

Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said states have greater responsibility for coming up with plans to improve the lowest-performing schools.

“We have to make sure states don’t take their eye off their responsibility that every kid in our increasingly diverse states have access to a high quality education, and someone is making sure that they are actually achieving,” she said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner