Reauthorizing ESEA: Four Key Issues for Lawmakers | Web version

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June 17, 2015


Reauthorizing ESEA

Four Key Issues for Lawmakers

A teacher calling on students

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Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (better known as No Child Left Behind or NCLB) expired over seven years ago, numerous attempts to reauthorize the law have surfaced and failed. Lawmakers face difficult decisions on a range of issues across the breadth of K-12 education policy. However, this could finally be the year Congress is able to update ESEA: Committees in both the House and Senate have advanced legislation, and congressional efforts to overhaul the law are expected to continue this summer.

RAND experts have studied many of the issues central to the reauthorization debate and, earlier this year, released a series of publications exploring four key issues confronting legislators: federal requirements for testing, school improvement, teaching effectiveness, and innovation.

Federal Requirements for Testing

Should legislators retain the requirement for annual testing in grades 3 through 8 and one high school grade? Or should states be afforded flexibility to develop alternative testing plans? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer about the ideal amount of student testing, and research suggests that the high-stakes testing adopted in response to NCLB has produced both positive and negative outcomes. A policy that requires states to adopt annual testing in specific grade levels (e.g., grades 3 through 8 and at least one high school grade, as under NCLB) but that does not mandate specific targets or consequences associated with those tests, would give states the flexibility to design accountability systems that meet their needs and address their goals while ensuring that information about school performance continues to be available to families and other stakeholders.

Regardless of which approach to testing Congress chooses, RAND researchers suggest that the following conditions be in place to maximize the likelihood of positive outcomes:

  • Reporting requirements should encourage states and districts to report on multiple indicators of school success, not just test scores.
  • The specific metrics that are tied to decisions about accountability and the consequences attached should be carefully designed to prevent gaming and to promote positive change.
  • Tests should be designed to address the full range of college- and career-ready standards that many states have adopted, which suggests that exclusive reliance on inexpensive formats such as multiple-choice or short-answer items will be insufficient.
  • Test content and the way questions are asked should be somewhat unpredictable from one year to the next to reduce the likelihood that educators will teach to specific item formats and content rather than covering the full range of standards that the test is designed to measure.

Decisions about testing requirements will influence students and educators at all levels of the system, and they need to be considered carefully. These suggestions can help overcome some of the challenges testing has faced in the past and support high-quality teaching and learning for all of America's students.

School Improvement

Some of NCLB's more controversial provisions have been aimed at improving persistently low-performing schools, but these attempts have often fallen short. Research points to four challenges that undermine school reform: maintaining a focus on school improvement, selecting effective reform approaches, ensuring that these approaches align with needs, and securing the commitment of effort and focus required for reforms to succeed.

Current proposals for ESEA reauthorization provide more state-level autonomy in identifying low-performing schools and setting direction for improvement. Federal legislators might review some of the lessons from the past as they consider how to direct ESEA resources to states for their reform efforts:

  • School failure should be identified and addressed, and Congress should consider how to ensure that school improvement remains a priority in an area of tight budgets and hard decisions. Federal and state policymakers should hold districts and schools accountable for improvement. Information on which schools struggle the most should be thoughtfully and systematically used to target schools for support.
  • Federal policies could increase the likelihood of reform success by continuing to require the use of rigorous evidence of effectiveness in decisionmaking as a condition of funding. States, districts, and schools should select reform approaches based on the evidence of their effects.
  • Reform approaches should address school-specific conditions and challenges. The strengths and needs of students and staff, school and district resources, and prior history of reform efforts matter in whether a specific reform approach will be accepted and work in a given school.
  • Too often, what is actually implemented is much less intensive than what was intended by federal policy. Given the option, schools and districts tend to choose the least-intensive reform approaches, which unfortunately also tend to be the least effective. Effective policy must communicate the message that school reform is hard work and support the substantial, sustained effort it requires.

As legislators rethink ESEA and reconsider the federal role in improving schools, they will need to find a balance between driving for school improvement and acknowledging state and local autonomy in setting specific directions for reform.

Teaching Effectiveness

Research demonstrates that, among school-related factors, teachers matter the most when it comes to student academic performance. As Congress looks for ways to improve teaching effectiveness as part of efforts to reauthorize ESEA, policymakers must be sure to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of different ways to measure and promote effectiveness and their implications for policy. RAND researchers recommend that Congress addresses the following points related to evaluating and promoting high-quality teaching when considering the reauthorization of ESEA:

  • Congress should encourage states and districts to adopt high-quality teacher evaluation systems that rely on multiple measures. Given teaching's complexity, it would be inappropriate for states or districts to make high-stakes decisions about teachers on the basis of any single measure. Evaluation systems should incorporate measures of student learning, but should not rely exclusively on value-added models or other metrics based on standardized test scores.
  • Teacher evaluation systems should be designed to support instructional improvement. Measures that provide breakdowns for specific aspects of teaching, such as rubric-based classroom observations, are more likely to be informative than are measures that gauge effectiveness only in broad terms.
  • Professional development (PD) should be targeted toward the needs of individual teachers. Current Title II provisions that emphasize increasing the percentage of teachers who participate in PD have led many districts to emphasize quantity rather than quality. High-quality PD encourages teachers to try out new instructional strategies that bolster areas where they have need, reflect on their practices, and receive feedback from colleagues and mentors.
  • PD should also be provided to school leaders to help them better evaluate and support teachers. Principals and other school leaders play a key role in supporting conditions for effective teaching, and efforts to improve teaching should not neglect the need to improve school leadership.

Policies aimed at boosting teaching effectiveness are a key component of a strong ESEA reauthorization, and these policy recommendations can help Congress set both new and veteran teachers up for success.


Since NCLB was enacted, schools, districts, and state education agencies have pushed forward with new programs aimed at improving student learning, closing the achievement gap, and promoting high-quality teaching and school leadership. As lawmakers consider the reauthorization of ESEA, it is critical that they do not create unnecessary obstacles to the productive innovations being explored at schools around the country. Some of the most innovative work in education today revolves around personalized learning, in which students work at their own pace, allowing them to be challenged at their own frontier of knowledge.

Congress could consider adopting the following recommendations to ensure that the framework in which state and local education agencies must operate does not hinder innovation:

  • All students should be expected to attain defined, rigorous standards, but should not have to meet these standards on a rigid schedule.
  • Congress could encourage states to measure student progress without requiring that all students of a certain age be assessed on the same material at the same time.
  • Defining metrics for adequate growth that allow for variation among students must be balanced with ensuring that this flexibility does not exacerbate existing inequities. Careful monitoring can allow for a balance between flexibility and high expectations, and ensure that even struggling students are kept on a trajectory for success.
  • Policies could promote the development of assessment systems that provide clear status indicators showing where students are in their educational trajectory and how much further they have to go.
  • Congress could encourage rethinking the time- and credit-based approach to determining when students are eligible to receive a high school diploma, replacing it with an approach that emphasizes students' accomplishments of defined standards.

Educators must be allowed the flexibility to undertake promising new approaches without regulations standing in the way.

Learn More »

Watch RAND's Capitol Hill Briefing on ESEA »

More RAND Work on ESEA »

Explore RAND Education »

For more information or to get in touch with RAND Education experts, please contact me at
(703) 413-1100 ext. 5299, or

Grace Evans
Legislative Analyst, Education
RAND Corporation
(703) 413-1100 ext. 5299

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