Obama Administration Releases New Rules for Judging Schools

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) —

The U.S. Education Department on Monday released final regulations governing how states should judge which schools are doing well and which are struggling and require help, a contentious set of rules that has pitted the Obama administration and its civil rights allies against an unusual alliance of teachers unions and GOP leaders.

But for all the debate, it is unclear — given Republican Donald Trump’s surprise election — whether the new rules will much matter. Trump has pledged a smaller federal footprint in public education, giving rise to speculation that his administration is likely to either rewrite the new regulations entirely, giving states more leeway to handle school accountability as they wish, or render the rules meaningless by declining to enforce them.

The new regulations explain in detail what states must do to comply with the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind when it passed with bipartisan support last year.

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said he could not speculate on how the incoming Trump administration might handle the regulations, but said he believes that state education chiefs and district leaders are eager to move forward with implementing the new law.

States must continue to administer standardized tests in math and reading to students in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. But rather than judging schools solely by test scores, states now have a new opportunity to include other measures — such as chronic absenteeism or access to Advanced Placement courses — in their school ratings.

The department released draft rules in May and made several key changes in response to more than 20,000 public comments. “That feedback resulted in a better regulation,” King said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “We’ve provided increased flexibility for states and districts in some key areas while ensuring civil rights protections remained in place for our neediest students.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee and a primary architect of the bipartisan education law, said in a statement that he “would have moved to overturn the earlier version of this regulation” because it represented a federal overreach by the Obama administration. “I will carefully review this final version before deciding what action is appropriate,” he said.

The draft rules required states to identify schools in need of extra help by the 2017-2018 school year, a timeline widely panned as unrealistic; the final rules extend the timeline by a year. The new regulations also give states more time to develop their plans: They now must submit those plans to the Education Department by one of two deadlines, April 3 or Sept. 18.

The draft rules had also drawn criticism for requiring states to roll all of the data pertaining to a school into one simple rating, such as a letter grade, to give parents easy-to-understand information.

The revised rules clarify that states are only required to label schools with the categories, specified in the law itself: those in need of “comprehensive” intervention, including the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent; those in need of “targeted” support, including those with low-performing subgroups of students; and schools with no special identification. States can create more nuanced ratings if they wish, but they don’t have to.

The Council of Chief State School Officers acknowledged the agency for listening to the concerns expressed by state education chiefs around the country.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also praised many of the changes as “commonsense,” but said the Obama administration did not go far enough in rolling back its rules regarding test participation.

The law requires that schools ensure 95 percent of students take tests each year, and leaves it to states to decide what to do about schools that don’t make that benchmark.

The draft rule gave states several options to choose from in addressing schools with large numbers of students who don’t take annual standardized tests, an issue that has become a lightning rod as the “opt-out movement” — in which parents refuse to allow their children to take tests — has grown. But all of the options involved substantial dings to the school’s rating.

The final rule gives states more flexibility, adding an option that allows states to come up with their own method of dealing with low participation, as long as it is rigorous enough to actually fix the problem.

To civil rights groups, requiring participation in tests is critical for accurately measuring students’ progress — and therefore accurately measuring whether schools are adequately serving the most disadvantaged children.

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