Published Online: July 28, 2006

GAO: Growth Models Hold Promise for NCLB Accountability

Carefully-constructed growth models can help meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s goal of getting the nation’s students to academic proficiency, but states face technical hurdles in creating models that work, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

To make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind law, schools and districts must meet annual targets for the percentage of students who score at least at the proficient level on state reading and mathematics tests, both for the student population as a whole and for certain subgroups of students. Growth models would allow schools to meet standards by measuring the academic progress that students make from year to year, even if the students have not yet made it to the proficient level.

Two states, Tennessee and North Carolina, are currently running growth model pilot programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The GAO, the watchdog agency of Congress, said in the report that almost every state has created or is developing its own growth model.

The GAO used a broad definition of the term “growth model.” In addition to models that track the growth of individual students over time, the GAO also included in its report states that measure changes in test scores or proficiency levels of schools or groups of students. Under that definition, 26 states currently use a growth model and 22 states and the District of Columbia are considering using one. States have used growth models for their own purposes to target assistance to schools, or to award bonuses to teachers, for example.

“I think that states can create a growth model for all students to reach proficiency by 2014,” Marnie S. Shaul, the director of the GAO study, told the House education committee on July 27. But to use the models for NCLB purposes, each state would have to develop a robust data management system that would allow them to track the progress of individual students, she said.

Educators Favor Model

A panel of educators and analysts appearing before the House Education and the Workforce Committee generally spoke in favor of adding a growth-model component to the No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization in 2007.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein told the committee that under the law’s main accountability system, educators are motivated to work intensively with students who are just below proficiency, to move them over that threshold and therefore meet AYP. Students who are well below proficiency might be left to struggle because moving them forward is too difficult. Students who are already proficient are not challenged to work harder because their growth doesn’t count under the current accountability system, he told the committee.

“I think it’s very important that we don’t breed cynicism in the system,” said Mr. Klein, who leads a district of 1.1 million students. Growth models would encourage schools to make progress with students at all proficiency levels, he said, instead of just with those at the edge of proficiency.

William L. Sanders, a statistician noted for his work on “value added” analysis, which allows schools and districts to more precisely measure their contribution to student learning, suggested that growth models could take the place of NCLB’s “safe harbor” policy, which provides a second look at schools that have failed to meet their annual achievement targets. That policy allows schools to meet AYP if the percentage of students below the proficient level on state tests drops by 10 percent from the previous school year, for the group of students that missed its target.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the education committee, said the reliability and utility of growth models is the focus of an ongoing debate.

“We’re not necessarily here to embrace the concept, nor to refute it,” he said. “Instead, we’re simply here to listen, and to learn.”

Vol. 25

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