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Published in Print: May 25, 2005, as Florida Gains Flexibility on NCLB Provisions

Florida Gains Flexibility on NCLB Provisions

Fewer Schools Likely to Miss Annual Progress Goals Under Changes

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Federal officials last week gave Florida more leeway in calculating the progress of students under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But the state is still negotiating over a proposal to track the learning gains of individual students to help determine whether schools have met the law’s achievement targets.

Florida Commissioner of Education John L. Winn said in an interview last week that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had granted two of the state’s requested changes to its accountability plan under the federal law.

Had the changes been in place last year, the state estimates 457 more schools would have made adequate yearly progress under the law. Only 23 percent of Florida’s schools—or 331—met the federal standards last year, based on test data from the 2003-04 school year.

One of the changes permits Florida to increase the number of students required for a subgroup’s test scores to count for determining AYP from 30 youngsters to 15 percent of the total school population. The state will continue to report all data for subgroups with more than 30 students on school report cards. But it successfully argued that the size and diversity of Florida’s schools made them more likely to miss at least one AYP target than was true in other states, if the state was forced to keep such a low minimum threshold.

The state also got permission to revise its annual targets for the percent of students who must score at the proficient level or higher on state reading and mathematics tests. Originally, those figures were to jump from 31 percent to 48 percent in reading this school year, and from 38 percent to 53 percent in math.

Under a revised timetable, the state will raise those targets in smaller, annual increments, rather than every three years. The new targets require at least 37 percent of students to score at the proficient level in reading in 2004-05, and 44 percent in math. The law requires all students—in every state—to perform at the proficient level by 2014.

Growth Model

Ms. Spellings announced the changes at a news conference in Tallahassee on May 16, alongside Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Mr. Winn. To gain approval for the changes, the state provided data demonstrating how it is meeting the principles of the federal law, by raising achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, under its A+ accountability plan.

In an April 7 speech, Ms. Spellings challenged states to demonstrate that they met the law’s core principles in exchange for added flexibility. ("States to Get New Options on NCLB Law," April 13, 2005.)

“They [Florida] just took the ball and ran with it,” said Kerri L. Briggs, a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education. “They packaged a lot of data; it’s a pretty impressive document.”

The state is still negotiating with federal officials over three additional proposals.

Like many states, Florida hopes to change how it calculates the proficiency of students with disabilities, by taking advantage of new flexibility offered by federal officials this month. ("States Hoping to ‘Grow’ Into AYP Success ," May 18, 2005.)

In addition, the state wants to improve the alignment between its own accountability system and the NCLB law to avoid the situation it faced last year, when many schools earned A’s and B’s under the state system but failed to meet federal targets.

The Sunshine State grades schools based in part on the improvement of individual students who score in the bottom 25 percent on state tests. And it would like to incorporate such an approach under the federal law.

The state has proposed using a measure of individual student improvement under the law’s “safe harbor” provision that would permit schools to make adequate progress as long as there were more students who maintained or moved up to proficiency in the current school year than in the prior school year.

“This calculation,” wrote Mr. Winn in a letter to Secretary Spellings, “takes advantage of Florida’s ability to track the learning gains of individual students, providing an improved measure of each student’s progress. We believe that learning gains will become the national norm within five years, and Florida should lead the way.”

But Ms. Briggs said before making any decisions about such “growth” models, Secretary Spellings wants to convene a task force of experts in the field. Last week, the secretary asked Mr. Winn to join that group. Their work is not expected to be finished in time to alter states’ AYP calculations for this year.

Seeking Changes

So far, 37 states have asked for changes to their state accountability plans that would affect how they rate schools this year, based on 2004-05 test data. The deadline to request such changes is June 1.

As of May 18, federal officials had approved some changes to those plans for eight states: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Most changes took advantage of previous flexibility offered by the federal government, such as the use of a statistical technique, known as a confidence interval, in making AYP decisions; making changes to subgroup sizes; and providing more leeway in identifying districts needing improvement.

Vol. 24, Issue 38, Pages 18,20

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Correction: 
This story incorrectly reported the number of schools in Florida that made adequate yearly progress last year. The correct figure is 719. For a subgroup in Florida to count for purposes of making AYP, it must have at least 30 students and represent 15 percent of the total school population, or have at least 100 students.

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