Published Online: September 11, 2012
Published in Print: September 12, 2012, as Ed. Dept., Virginia Stumble Over Waiver

Ed. Dept., Virginia Stumble Over Waiver

Flawed achievement-gap targets set for revision

Less than two months after granting Virginia a waiverRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader under the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education has backtracked on its unconditional approval. The move came after the state widely publicized new academic-achievement targets for schools that do little, if anything, to close the gaps between low-performing groups of students, such as blacks and Hispanics, and their white peers.

The Virginia stumble illustrates the difficult, yet important, task facing the federal department, which must manage a patchwork of 34 different, complex accountability systems now that a majority of states are free from some of the core tenets of the NCLB law. The list of waiver states could grow, too, as a few more states seek the flexibility this fall.

Fierce Criticism

Virginia's new annual measurable objectives, or AMOs, set off a firestorm of controversy within the state once they were released in July. They sparked newspaper opinion pieces, letters to and fromRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader state officials, and even a Facebook page in protest over what were seen as low expectations set for students deemed at risk academically.

In a letterRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader sent Aug. 29 to Virginia schools chief Patricia I. Wright, federal officials outlined an agreement in which the state will redo its AMOs so that students who are furthest behind make the greatest progress. The state board of education is expected to approve new AMOs at its Sept. 27 meeting, the letter says, and submit them for federal approval.

"Ambitious but achievable AMOs that require significant closing of achievement gaps between subgroups of students are a critical element of those plans," wrote Deborah S. Delisle, the federal Education Department's chief K-12 official.

Doing It Over: A Timeline

The process of setting annual measurable objectives, or AMOs, was the subject of much back and forth between Virginia and the U.S. Department of Education as the two sides negotiated the state’s No Child Left Behind Act waiver.


Feb. 28:
Virginia submits its original request for an NCLB waiver to the Education Department, proposing AMOs that rely substantially on the state’s school accreditation process versus annual targets on tests for subgroups of at-risk students.


April 17:
The Education Department sends a letter to Virginia outlining its concerns, and the concerns of the outside peer reviewers, about its AMOs.


June 29:
After proposing a new methodology for setting AMOs, Virginia is awarded a waiver from the Education Department. The state’s revised waiver proposal does not contain actual targets for students and subgroups because the state had revised its tests and was waiting for the latest results.


July 24:
The Virginia education department announces its new AMOs in reading and math based on the latest test scores—annual targets that only minimally seek to close achievement gaps.


Aug. 7:
The Newport News Daily Press is among the first local news outlets to publish editorials and op-ed commentaries criticizing the new AMOs.


Aug. 10:
A Facebook page protesting the new AMOs is launched.


Aug. 24:
An op-ed essay appears in The Washington Post objecting to the new AMOs.


Aug. 29:
Virginia and the federal Education Department reach an agreement by which the state will create new AMOs using a new methodology that requires at-risk groups of students to make faster progress, thus closing achievement gaps at a faster rate.


Sept. 27:
The Virginia board of education is scheduled to approve the new AMOs, which then will be submitted to federal officials for approval.

The problem, both sides say, is that Virginia recently adopted new, more rigorous tests, and the results weren't available at the time of the waiver application. No one could know how the AMOs would play out using the new methodology.

But the Education Department went ahead and approved the methodology anyway—without conditions—when it awarded Virginia a waiver in June.

The result: Virginia publicized new AMOs that may have been realistic, but that weren't very ambitious for subgroups of low-performing students.

As one example, according to a state education department press release from July, after the test results had become available, the gap in math-proficiency rates between black and white students on the 2011-12 state tests was 23 percentage points. By the 2017-18 school year, or five years from now, the goal is only to narrow the gap by 2 percentage points.

In the end, Virginia aspires to have 57 percent of its black students proficient in math by 2017-18, compared with 78 percent of white students.

Advocates Cautious

Advocates who fought the state's AMOs are cautiously optimistic that revisions will lead to higher expectations for all students.

"It certainly looks like things are moving in the right direction, but we really won't know how well it serves students until we see the details," said Angela Ciolfi, the legal director of the JustChildren Program in Charlottesville, Va., which works on education and juvenile-justice issues.

"I hope this represents a renewed commitment to closing the achievement gap," she said, "and not just plugging new numbers into the same old formula, which everybody acknowledges won't address the problem."

Complex Methodology

The original methodology behind Virginia's AMOs, which was approved by federal officials, is complex. It focuses on closing gaps between students and subgroups in low-performing schools versus high-performing schools. It does not focus on closing gaps between at-risk student groups, such as low-income students, and their better-off peers. That was one of the hallmarks of the NCLB law, and something the department says is still critically important.

The new methodology, said Virginia education department spokesman Charles Pyle, will set the benchmarks so the lowest-performing students will be expected to post bigger gains to close the gaps.

"AMOs were never meant as aspirational goals for different sugroups," he said.

The federal department was aware of potential problems with Virginia's AMO process. The peer reviewers who judged the state's original application, submitted in February, found big problems with that particular section of the application, noting a "lack of clarity" on how academic targets were set. The department followed up in a letterRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader citing a "significant concern" with the "lack of ambitious but achievable" AMOs.

Related Blog

Virginia revised its application, which eventually won federal approval. But the state did not provide any modeling on what the new AMOs might look like, in part because base-line test results weren't available.

But education policy analysts who studied the waiver applications note that the approved methodology, by itself, may have been flawed. Virginia wants to close gaps between the schools at the 90th percentile for achievement and those in the 20th percentile. If high-performing schools start doing worse and low-performing schools stay even, then the gap actually narrows—but not because low-performing schools are doing a better job. Effectively, the achievement gap could get smaller without student improvement.

"Now the task is to ensure that the state has set a high bar for its students," said Jeremy Ayers, the associate director of federal education programs at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, who has studied the waiver applications.

Vol. 32, Issue 03, Pages 21-22

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