Federal Education Policy Over the Years

"It's been an education." - Daniel Lewis, ACT

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reduces federal requirements for some aspects of educational accountability and assessment from those of the No Child Left Behind Act, but prior to the enactment of ESEA in 1965 federal involvement in elementary and secondary education was almost nonexistent. Let’s take a step back to consider the history of federal education policy and:

  • Its effect on assessment design and practice
  • How it connects to current practices
  • How it guides future educational policy
  • Three factors limited the enactment of federal education policy prior to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed by President Johnson:
  • Politics associated with school desegregation
  • Controversial issues associated with federal funding for parochial schools
  • Fear of central (versus local) control in light of the rise of communism.

Even with school enrollments increasing by more than 1 million students a year, it took control of both houses and the presidency by one party in 1964, as well as a national focus on education prompted by losing the race to space with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, to open the door to passing ESEA.

Federal Education Policy and Equity

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the road for equity in education, and ESEA was the vehicle that would drive school desegregation, which was required to receive associated federal funding. But that was only the beginning of ESEA’s role in creating equitable education and assessment practices.

President Johnson amended ESEA in 1967 to include Title VII—the Bilingual Education Act—which recognized the challenges of non-native English speakers in US public schools. President Ford signed the 1975 Education for all Handicapped Children Act, which guaranteed a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities by introducing the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and providing the least-restrictive environment (LSE) to these special populations. With this, desegregation moved beyond race to support an integrated education for students with disabilities.

The equitable education for all students was significantly advanced when President Clinton passed the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA, known as Improving America’s Schools Act, which required disaggregated reporting, resulting in a spotlight on learning gaps by race, gender, English proficiency, disability, and economic status. President Bush went further with NCLB in 2001 by requiring annual assessment of all students for specified grades and subjects and requiring adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals for each of these subgroups. Any school failing to meet their AYP targets, even for one subgroup, was labeled a failing school with associated consequences.

By assessing nearly all students and tying accountability to subgroup progress, the Universal Design movement was significantly advanced. That is, if all students were to be tested, then the methods associated with Universal Design were required to enhance access to assessments for all students. The specification of Universal Design as an assessment design tool was explicitly stated in the most recent ESEA reauthorization—ESSA.

Federal Education Policy and Local Control

Local control is still a tenet of education, and there are local-control states that assert greater local authority for educational decision making, but there is no doubt that federal education requirements have increased significantly since Johnson’s 1965 passage of ESEA.

With the acceptance of Title 1 funding, states were required to measure the effectiveness of Title 1 programs using norm-referenced assessments, and that fundamental norm-referenced metric, the normal curve equivalent (NCE), was created specifically for Title I to support score comparability across assessments. President Clinton’s 1994 reauthorization of ESEA required states to adopt content and performance standards and to test students once in each grade span (elementary, middle, and high school) in reading and mathematics, but only 17 states had complied by the time he left office.

Needing a stronger stick, President Bush introduced Peer Review—a rigorous metric that required states to provide detailed documentation about how their assessment programs met NCLB requirements. Federal authority peaked, at least up to this point in educational policy history, with President Obama’s 2011 requirements for states to receive a waiver from the unreachable NCLB AYP goal of 100% student proficiency by 2014. In exchange for NCLB flexibility, the administration required states to:

  • Adopt common core standards for college and career readiness
  • Focus improvement efforts on the lowest 15 percent of their most troubled schools
  • Create guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance

It was in partly in reaction to what many felt was that federal overreach that inspired President Obama’s reauthorization of ESEA—the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Trump administration has continued pulling back on federal control of education with his Education Federalism Executive Order, a 300-day review of Obama-era regulations and guidance for school districts, with the intention of modifying or repealing measures deemed an overreach by the federal government.

Federal Education Policy and Test Design. Test design has also been strongly influenced by federal education policy. President Clinton’s 1994 IASA moved the nation from norm-referenced to criterion-referenced testing and to standards-based accountability. President Bush’s NCLB referenced “scientifically based research” more than 50 times and peer review operationalized the requirement to conform to best assessment practices described in the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (jointly developed by AERA, APA, and NCME). The high-stakes nature of NCLB assessments prompted the measurement community to advance:

  • The use of item response theory to support test development, scaling, equating, and bias detection
  • New standard-setting methods to support high-stakes classification of students to achievement levels
  • Automated scoring technology so that test results could be reported more quickly, in time for teachers to use them to support student achievement
  • The rise of research-based interim assessments and balanced assessment systems so that teachers could diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses earlier in the school year, in time for interventions
  • The use of growth as an alternative to proficiency status, so that schools that demonstrated significant student growth, even if they were not yet proficient, could be credited with success

The effect of federal policy on test design continued with President Obama’s Race to the Top Assessment program, which funded six consortia supporting new and innovative (a) summative accountability assessments (Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), (b) alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Dynamic Learning Maps and the National Center and State Collaboratives), and (c) English language development assessments for English learners (English Language Proficiency Assessments for the 21st Century and WIDA).

  • The consortia’s assessment designs and practices advanced several innovations and technology enhancements:
  • Smarter’s and PARCC’s use of technology-enabled items made these item types a baseline for contemporary assessment delivery platforms
  • Smarter’s and PARCC’s use of online testing and Smarter’s investment in adaptive testing finally brought online and adaptive testing into the mainstream of assessment programs
  • The consortia’s use of evidence-centered design to support test development advanced the use of principled assessment design in the assessment industry
  • PARCC’s original design offered the promise, but not the fulfillment, of through-course testing—the use of multiple testing administrations over the course of the year to formulate students’ summative test scores, as opposed to a single, end-of-year test administration

Federal education policy—and its influence on state, district, and school educational and assessment programs—has moved from nearly nonexistent in Eisenhower’s time to persistent in modern times. Eisenhower was hesitant to legislate education. Besides his concern about tampering with local control, he was concerned about a never-ending federal funding stream. “If you try to make every state believe they are getting something for nothing out of such a bill, then I would doubt your ability to terminate the operation of the bill at the end of the five-year period,” Eisenhower said.

While he was correct—funding for ESEA has increased nearly constantly with each reauthorization—it’s hard to dispute many positive outcomes, perhaps most evidently, the advancement of the right to a quality education and access to research-based assessment, for all students.