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Published in Print: March 28, 2007, as Growth Models for NCLB Accountability Are Weighed

Growth Models for NCLB Accountability Are Weighed

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Amending the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions to require the measurement of students’ academic growth is a popular idea, but the transition to it might not be quick or easy, a panel of experts told federal lawmakers last week.

Not all states have the data capabilities to operate so-called growth models, and many others would need to revise their testing programs to take full advantage of them, testing experts and state officials said at the House Education and Labor Committee’s second hearing on the reauthorization of the federal education law.

“This is a whole lot more complicated than I thought,” Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said at the March 21 hearing.

But such hurdles shouldn’t dissuade policymakers from taking steps to ensure all states eventually use individual student growth to determine whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress—or AYP—under the law.

“Growth could be the best accountability measure,” said Allan Olson, the chief academic officer of the Northwest Evaluation Association, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization that provides computer-based testing for 2,500 school districts in 49 states. “It is also the best possible way to improve our capacity to improve student learning.”

As Congress weighs the reauthorization of the NCLB law this year, the debate over how to change the 5-year-old legislation’s accountability measures will be one of the most important questions, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House panel, said at last week’s hearing.

Critics say the current accountability measures fail to reward schools and districts that produce student-achievement gains. Schools that start with low achievement can show dramatic gains but still miss short-term goals that would put their students on the road toward proficiency in reading and mathematics—the law’s ultimate goal.

House committee members want to be “responsive to legitimate concerns,” Rep. Miller said, but he wants to maintain what he calls the “core values of the law.”

Those values include the goal that all students score at the proficient level in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year, and that states monitor progress toward that goal by assessing students in those subjects in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

While the Department of Education has authorized five states to experiment with growth models, a total of 27 states have the data warehouses necessary to track students’ academic growth from one year to the next, said Chrys Dougherty, the research director of the National Center on Educational Accountability, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit group supporting data-based efforts to improve schools.

Even states with excellent data systems would have to alter their testing programs to realize the full potential of growth models, Mr. Olson told the House committee.

Most states’ tests are written to determine whether students are achieving at grade level, so they don’t provide enough detailed information on the achievement of those who are well below that level or those who are well above it, he said.

To find out about the academic growth of students at opposite ends of the achievement spectrum, Mr. Olson said, states would need to produce different types of assessments that measured students’ capabilities across a broader range of knowledge and skills.

Interim Measures

Even if all states aren’t prepared to use growth models, the experts said, Congress could authorize a hybrid system, requiring states to use the current methodology until they’re ready to adopt growth methods.

As part of the Education Department’s pilot program, federal officials have established a peer-review process that ensures states’ proposals are feasible and would deliver accurate results.

In fact, the growth-model application process is “very similar to what states had to do” to win approval for their accountability plans when the NCLB law was first being administered, Harold C. Doran, a senior research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based research organization, and a member of the team of Education Department advisers evaluating the latest round of proposals for growth models, said at the hearing.

Vol. 26, Issue 29, Page 20

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