The states that made the first cut to qualify for a new pilot program that would let them use so-called growth models to judge whether schools and districts meet their performance targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are using a variety of approaches to tackle the task.
The Department of Education announced March 31 that it had selected growth-model proposals from eight states—Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon, and Tennessee—to move to the next round of reviews for the pilot.
The program, which Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings unveiled in November, is designed to test whether an accountability system based on the academic growth students show from year to year would be as fair and reliable as the current system.
To make adequate progress, or AYP, schools and districts currently must meet annual targets for the percent of students who score at least at the proficient level on state tests, both for the student population as a whole and for subgroups of students who are poor, speak limited English, have disabilities, or come from racial or ethnic minorities. With growth models, schools could get credit for students who make progress over the course of the year, but who have not yet reached the proficient level.
The results of the experimental program are expected to figure prominently in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education program. The law is due for renewal next year.
Ms. Spellings had initially indicated she would approve as many as 10 state plans for the new program. Twenty states met the Feb. 17 deadline to apply, but only 13 put forward plans to apply growth-model calculations to student-testing data collected from the 2005-06 academic year. The rest were automatically deferred because they were planning to begin their test runs next school year. (“States Vie to Be Part of NCLB ‘Growth’ Pilot,” Feb. 1, 2006.)
Most of the states that passed the first round of review plan to use the growth-model calculations in conjunction with the current systems and the federal law’s “safe harbor” provisions, which are designed to give a second look to schools that don’t make AYP initially. Under the setup proposed by those states, the growth models would provide a third way that schools could meet achievement targets.
Federal officials are sending proposals from eight states on to the next round of screening for a new pilot program allowing states to consider students’ academic growth in measuring whether schools and districts meet performance targets under the No Child Left Behind Act.
*Click image to see the full chart.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Oregon, for example, proposes to plot out four-year growth trajectories that individual students have to meet, in stair-step fashion, to reach the proficient level by 2014—the goal for all students under the federal law. Unlike some other state proposals, though, the Oregon plan calls for setting growth targets for students who are already proficient, as well as for those who haven’t reached that benchmark.
“From our point of view, growth cuts both ways,” said Patrick Burk, the chief policy officer for the Oregon Department of Public Instruction. “Under the current system, in theory, you could have schools where 51 percent of students are meeting the standard, and they’ve been at that for three years.”
“Another school, in a high-poverty, high-minority district, might’ve started out at 30 percent [of students reaching proficiency], and then went to 49 percent,” he added. “That’s 19 [percentage points of] growth, but it’s still below 51 percent, so they’re identified as failing.” Florida’s proposal, in comparison, calls for setting a slightly steeper improvement slope, requiring students to meet state standards in three years for schools to achieve AYP.
In its plan, Tennessee set aside its noted “value added” model for measuring school improvement in favor of a system based on projections of student growth three years into the future. State officials would make their predictions by looking at the rate of growth that students are making and comparing it with how long students three years older took to reach proficiency.
“What value-added does is it encourages schools and districts to make sure that they are, on average, giving students a year’s worth of academic growth each year,” said Cory Curl, a senior policy analyst in the deputy commissioner’s office in the Tennessee Department of Education. “It doesn’t really look at where individual students start out.”
Some Plans Rejected
The federal department rejected plans from five states—Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, South Carolina, and Utah—for failing to adhere to key criteria for participating in the pilot, according to letters that federal officials sent to those states this week.
Utah’s model was turned down, for example, because it would have required only 75 percent of students to meet the proficient level by 2014, rather than using the 100 percent target required by the federal law. The state’s plan also proposed combining student subgroups, such as all African-American, Hispanic, or low-income students at a school, into one large, school-level subgroup in its accountability calculations.
South Carolina’s proposal missed making the cut because it set higher thresholds for subgroup sizes for students with disabilities and students with limited English skills than it did for other subgroups in determining whether schools and districts met growth targets.
“Generally, the proposals that went on were serious proposals, and that’s somewhat encouraging,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that favors strong enforcement of the law’s requirements. “But it also leaves some concerns on the table and raises new ones.”
For instance, he said, some of the timelines in the proposals were too long.
“If you find out a kid’s behind in 3rd grade, it’s too long to not expect them to catch up for four more years,” he added. Other state plans, he noted, would have allowed school officials to “reset the clock” when students transferred to another district. He also wondered whether some of the plans were, in effect, setting up moving targets by recalculating growth trajectories every year or two.
Another testing expert who scanned the successful proposals, Scott F. Marion, pointed out that plans also differ in the amount of attention they would give to including results from alternative assessments for students with the most serious cognitive disabilities in the state growth calculations. Some proposals would not count scores from those exams in their growth models, he said, while some would. Others failed to address the issue at all.
“You would want to make sure that what to do with alternatively assessed kids is not an afterthought,” said Mr. Marion, who is the vice president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment. The nonprofit group, based in Dover, N.H., provides research and consulting services on assessment and accountability systems.
Overall, though, observers said this week that the variety in states’ plans to measure academic growth could offer useful lessons for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches. The eight successful first-round proposals will now go to a 10-member peer-review panel made up of testing experts, practitioners, state education leaders, civil rights advocates, and representatives of national education groups.
The panel’s recommendations for acceptance into the program are due to Secretary Spellings next month. A spokesman for the department said the secretary would unveil the final list of program participants later in May.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Variety of Approaches Outlined in NCLB ‘Growth Models’