New Jersey could more easily make changes to student testing, academic standards and teacher evaluations under a proposed new federal education law that passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.
But that doesn't mean that it will, the top state education official said.
In a shift away from stringent federal regulations on schools and student testing, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law.
Already passed by the House, the new Every Student Succeeds Act also has the support of national teachers unions, and President Barack Obama has said he will sign the bipartisan legislation.
The proposed law give states control over setting goals for schools and deciding what to do if schools don't meet them. But its effect in New Jersey may be more subtle than in other states — parents might not see any tangible differences — and changes aren't likely to take hold immediately.
"I think we are solidly in the mainstream of the conversation nationally on education reform," state Education Commissioner David Hespe said. "I don't really see any major changes."
Though the new law won't automatically change the average day inside New Jersey classrooms, it does open new avenues for the state's leaders, said Jeff Passe, dean of the School of Education at the College of New Jersey.
"The question then is were they saying that they couldn't do X, Y or Z because of (No Child Left Behind) or were they using it as an excuse because they didn't really want to do it anyhow?" he said.
No Child Left Behind was a signature education initiative of the George W. Bush administration, but it was maligned by many teachers and administrators for its emphasis on testing and increasingly lofty goals for student performance — all students were supposed to get a passing score on their standardized tests by 2014.
Some opponents of the new bill have said they worry it doesn't put enough pressure on schools to identify and improve struggling schools. Others have said they still think it allows the federal government too much influence over schools.
Here is a look at some of the key components of the Every Student Succeeds Act and what the proposed law could mean for New Jersey schools:
Testing: Schools would still have to test students every year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. They would also have to report the performance of various student subgroups, including minority or special education students.
However, New Jersey would have more flexibility to decide what scores students should aim to meet and what to do if schools miss those targets. Schools would be judged on at least one other factor beyond test scores, such as student engagement or other indicators of a school's climate.
The ESSA lessens the pressure on New Jersey to have more rigorous, complex exams, said William Firestone, a professor of education at Rutgers University. But Hespe said he considers assessments "long-term" initiatives and doesn't foresee changes to standardized testing initially.
The state is in the second year of a four-year contract with Pearson, the test vendor for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams.
"It's not something that is going to apply immediately because these assessments take so long to develop and you just don't want to change them rapidly," Hespe said.
Intervention: This may be where New Jersey schools, specifically those in the state's urban areas, see the biggest difference.
Under No Child Left Behind, the state's lowest performing schools were placed into improvement programs prescribed by the federal government. Federal School Improvement Grants for low-performing schools required personnel changes, such as installing a new principal.
The proposed new law lets a state work with its bottom 5 percent of schools and design its own plans for improvement. New Jersey will examine what it's doing now to help those schools and talk to educators about what it can do better, Hespe said.
"I think this law appears to give us a little more flexibility to get us to where we want," Hespe said.
Firestone said schools can likely expect new policies but there's no telling whether they will be more effective.
Standards: The bill says states should still have challenging academic standards — what skills students should learn and when they should learn them — but it forbids the federal government from recommending or using incentives to get states to adopt a particular set.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has already declared that the Common Core standards were "simply not working," and a panel of educators has conducted a review of those math and English standards.
That report is due at January's state Board of Education meeting, but state officials previously said they did not expect wholesale changes.
Hespe said he is glad to see the that ESSA includes a commitment to high standards.
Teacher evaluation: As with standards, the bill would prohibit the federal government from telling states how teachers should be evaluated.
New Jersey currently uses student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, one of the strings attached to its No Child Left Behind waiver, which had spared New Jersey from certain provisions of the law.
But that policy was also influenced by Christie's views on teachers, and Hespe said he doesn't foresee major changes to teacher evaluations.
"The good news is that in New Jersey we have a very strong law on this," Hespe said.
Yet the bill would provide leeway for change, and Passe and Firestone said the state's stance on teacher evaluation could evolve, especially if the national conversation shifts.
"If you get another governor who is interested in teacher evaluation, you will have a push in teacher evaluation," Firestone said. "If you get another governor who is not interested in teacher evaluation, you won't get that kind of push."