September 24, 2023

No Child Left Behind fix represents improvement, but road to implementation is long

Newton school administrators are cautiously optimistic the Every Child Succeeds Act will provide a better way to measure student achievement than No Child Left Behind but plenty of roadblocks to implementation remain.

Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, the goal of the Every Child Succeeds Act is to give states a broader authority to measure student progress on a more individualized level.

The ESSA plan, which was submitted this year for federal approval, changes the way school districts measure student progress. Struggling schools will be placed under an improvement plan, based on guidelines from the district or the state. Under the new ESSA guidelines schools will move away from a sanction-based model towards a support model, which Newton Community School District Superintendent Bob Callaghan said represented a tremendous improvement but cautioned that until the plan has federal approval, it’s anyone’s guess what the final guidelines will look like.

“The director of education said that he’s heard that if our plan meets the requirements that the federal government will just rubber stamp it, but that hasn’t been our experience with ESSA implementation,” Callaghan said. “Every other state has had to go back and make drastic changes, and that’s a hard pill to swallow to start making changes before the federal government has approved the director’s plan.”

It’s never easy to hit a moving target, and in the four years that Callaghan has been Newton’s superintendent, he’s seen state-mandated assessments continually get pushed back. The state’s Smarter Balance assessment test was supposed to be implemented in the 2015-16 school year, but it’s been pushed back every year, and with ESSA implementation looming Callaghan isn’t sure whether or not the test will be scrapped altogether.

“I don’t know what will happen with ESSA, the track record is not strong with things coming to fruition in the time frame that people expect,” Callaghan said.

Without a current state assessment test to measure progress, administrators and educators are caught in the middle, which Callaghan said has been frustrating.

“How are we going to check academic progress around the state when we don’t have an assessment that tests academic progress around the state?” Callaghan asked. “The Iowa assessment doesn’t test curriculum around the Iowa core.”

Despite muddled messages from the state, Callaghan insisted educators in Newton are committed to student growth and success. The district has its own tools for evaluating that growth, testing students K-11 in reading and administering the Measure of Academic Performance Test, or MAP to students in grades 5-11 every year.

“We are working hard behind the scenes to find ways to help all kids be successful regardless of what’s happening with ESSA,” Callaghan said.

School Board President Travis Padget said at first glance he believes ESSA will represent an improvement over NCLB, but until implementation, it’s hard to determine what changes will occur. Eliminating the punitive measures for failing to reach lofty targets and moving towards a support based model is a good start Padget said.

“NCLB was intended for failure for districts throughout the country, this allows for growth, which I think is much more appropriate,” Padget said. “Whether or not it’ll work that way I don’t know.”

Like Callaghan, Padget said he’s proud of the work the district is doing on its own to measure student success and promote growth. Teachers are a valuable resource in student success, and by focusing on professional development the district is committed to getting students in a better, more comprehensive way the district is getting a higher return from students according to Padget.

“There’s only so much that you can do with curriculum, this is helping teachers increase the impact they’re having as professionals,” Padget said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or