Relief as ‘No Child Left Behind' is left behind

by Kristen Cates

Kirsten Dige remembers the first few years after the No Child Left Behind act was approved and “adequate yearly progress” benchmarking caused a great deal of heartburn for her and her fellow teachers.

How could one test be compared to the same test given the next year to a different group of students to determine whether a student, school and district were making adequate progress?

“We know we’re doing a wonderful job in Great Falls,” said Dige, who teaches fourth grade at Lincoln Elementary. “Looking at that number doesn’t tell people what’s happening in our elementary schools.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major overhaul of No Child Left Behind, the previous measurement authorized through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is now headed to President Barack Obama’s desk.

It was approved 85-12, with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., voting yes and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., voting no.

“This bill really does put some curbs on the U.S. Department of Education,” Tester said.

The reauthorization removes the goal that every student should be 100 percent proficient in math and science by a certain date. It also moves accountability back to the school districts and states and allows them to draft intervention plans if a school is underperforming. Progress will be determined by a number of factors, including not only assessment performances but also things such as attendance and graduation rates and other indicators determined by each state.

Dige is happy to see the emphasis being placed on more than just test scores. After the first few years of stressing about the test scores, she learned that needing to meet seemingly arbitrary benchmarks based on certain populations of students was an elusive or lofty goal.

“Accountability is necessary,” she said. “However the assessments we use need to take into account the fact that these are children. We want the public to understand kids are learning.”

Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Lacey said the passage of the ESSA through the U.S. House and now the Senate is good news.

“I think it’s been a long time coming,” she said.

The act won’t take effect until 2017-2018, and it will be up to the Montana Office of Public Instruction to determine which sort of parameters will be set.

“All kinds of work needs to be done at the state level,” Lacey said. “We presume we’ll have a voice in that. Great Falls Public Schools has always believed in accountability. We’re looking for realistic goals – 100 percent proficiency is not a realistic goal.”

The reauthorization also limits some of the financial penalties if a school district is failing. According to information on, schools that are in the lowest 5 percent of poorest performing schools in their state will be required to do some sort of intervention. However, the district can present an evidenced-based approach to make improvements that can be authorized by the state, rather than a top-down approach.

A school district can set aside up to 7 percent of Title I federal funds (federal grants provided based on poverty levels), which is an increase from the 4 percent previously set aside.

Testing must still be done in the third through eighth grades as well as grade 10.

Tester said he was disappointed his amendment to limit testing to certain grade spans (grades four, eight and 10) did not make it onto the final version of the bill. But he’s still happy with what is in the bill.

“I think it’s unfortunate, but there will be another day to fight on it,” Tester said of his amendment. “(This bill) is absolutely a step in the right direction. Education isn’t done in a vacuum.”

Daines explained his no vote, saying in statement, “While this bill does make some improvements, it still fails to provide states with needed flexibility and control over federal education funds to best address the needs of local students.”

Jon Konen, principal at Lincoln Elementary, said he will be happy when No Child Left Behind is a thing of the past. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done at the state level to determine how ESSA will be implemented in Montana.

“I think getting away from NCLB with its consequences is a good thing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s afraid of accountability. But it’s about how accountability needs to be looked at from different factors.”