The Senate ESEA bill completely overhauls NCLB's accountability system, scrapping annual student performance targets in reading and math and eliminating the 2013–14 100 percent proficiency deadline. Instead, states would have to ensure all students make continuous improvement in academic achievement; it would be up to the states to define continuous improvement.
Although the bill maintains NCLB's annual testing regimen in reading and math and public reporting of disaggregated student achievement data, it allows states to build their own accountability systems, which can include measures of student growth. In the vast majority of cases, states would be able to decide whether and how to intervene in schools, but the bill stipulates specific turnaround strategies for the lowest-performing 5 percent of elementary and middle schools and the lowest 5 percent of high schools, also known as "persistently low-performing schools" based on graduation rates and state reading and math test scores.
In addition, the bill categorizes "achievement gap schools" as the 5 percent of elementary and middle schools and the 5 percent of high schools in each state with the largest achievement gaps among student subgroups, or the lowest student subgroup performance based on achievement tests and graduation rates. States would have to develop a plan to address the problem in these schools, and districts with achievement gap schools that can’t close their gaps would lose special consideration in federal funding competitions.
Such sanctions and focus, however, aren't enough for civil rights groups, which are bristling at the bill's elimination of specific subgroup student achievement targets. In a letter (PDF) to Harkin and Enzi, a coalition of groups asserted that the shift to continuous improvement "would dismantle the positive aspects of NCLB's accountability system and be a significant step backward that we can ill afford to take." Harkin has said he preferred progress goals, but had to abandon them to garner bipartisan support. He also believes that widespread state commitment to the Common Core State Standards will help maintain a high bar for all students.
In another shift from NCLB's exclusively punitive approach, the bill would allow states to reward schools with the highest student achievement and the most growth in student achievement. Those schools would receive funding to improve student achievement and provide technical assistance to similar schools in the state as well as significant flexibility in the use of federal dollars.