State Progress On Title I Rules Called Uneven

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When Congress revamped Title I in 1994, the new law was widely praised for raising the stakes in the massive remedial-education program. The idea was to spark changes in a program that had, by most measures, produced only marginal achievement gains among disadvantaged students.

The new law requires states to help Title I students meet the same challenging academic and performance standards that apply to all students; adopt new, multiple-measure assessment systems aligned with those standards; and apply benchmarks for measuring yearly progress by Title I schools and districts that require more than the incremental progress that had been accepted in the past.

Coupled with the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, the new structure was seen as a way to use federal dollars to drive standards-based school reform at the state and local levels.

But nearly two years after passage of the Improving America's Schools Act, the 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization that went into effect last July, states' progress toward meeting the new Title I requirements is extremely uneven. And many state officials acknowledge that they are daunted by the size of the task before them.

Some observers worry that the intent of the law--helping poor students meet high standards--may not be realized in some states for several years, if at all.

"States are just all kinds of everywhere," said Phyllis C. McClure, an education consultant and a longtime expert on Title I.

Some states have moved swiftly to implement the new rules, because they complement ongoing standards-based reform efforts.

But states that had not jumped on the standards bandwagon before the new law was enacted are essentially starting from scratch. Some state laws contradict certain Title I provisions. And, because the new law gives states several years to comply, some are simply taking their time.

"It's definitely a work in progress," said Mary Jean LeTendre, the Department of Education's director of compensatory-education programs. "The package isn't playing out as neatly as one would like it to play out in that in the first year you set standards and then you do the assessments.

"States are in varying stages of development, so it's like a patchwork quilt in which all of the pieces aren't there yet."

New Standards

In the past, states were required to use standardized, norm-referenced tests to gauge Title I students' performance, although they were encouraged to adopt other measures as well. Schools' performance was judged primarily on whether they could produce gains in student test scores.

Beginning in 1989, schools and districts with failing Title I programs entered a program-improvement process and were subject to state intervention. But the minimum national standard for "adequate progress" was set at a low level, and most states and districts did not set higher standards on their own. (See Education Week, March 25, 1992.)

Title I test scores are usually compared using the "normal curve equivalent" scale, designed to mesh with numerous standardized tests. It measures how much a student has learned relative to his peers. One NCE gain roughly equals 1 percentage-point gain on a 100-point scale.

In many states, schools were subject to program improvement only if their Title I students failed to produce an aggregate NCE gain above zero.

Not only was this national minimum viewed as too low a standard, but critics also argued that such a standard placed too much emphasis on tests that measure basic skills.

Under the new Title I, states must have "challenging" content and performance standards in at least mathematics and reading or language arts in place by the 1997-98 school year. They must be the same standards that apply to all students, unless the state has no such standards. Multiple-measure assessments aligned with the standards must be adopted by 2000-01.

States must decide how much annual progress toward the state's content standards will be deemed sufficient. Schools that fail to demonstrate progress for two consecutive years are to be identified by their districts for special attention and a revised school-performance plan.

Districts may also take such steps as withholding funds, repealing authority to operate a schoolwide Title I program, and making alternative governance arrangements. Districts must take such steps if a school fails to make progress for three consecutive years.

Similarly, districts that do not make progress are to be held accountable by the state.

Too Much Flexibility?

But states and districts, which in fiscal year 1995 divided $7.2 billion in Title I grants and served some 6.5 million students, have enormous leeway in how they implement this system.

Until the new assessments are in place--which may not happen in many states for some years--states are to measure the progress of Title I students with "transitional assessments." The 1994 law states only that these tests must "assess the performance of complex skills and challenging subject matter."

States need not define "adequate progress" until their new assessments are in place. During the transition period, states are free to devise a method for gauging progress by schools and districts.

While the old law may have set a low minimum standard, the new one has no national standards at all. Standards and accountability rules will vary among states, and states are even permitted to allow districts to set their own standards, as long as state officials ensure that districts' standards provide an equal level of "challenge."

Some observers fear that this flexibility--and federal officials' unwillingness to provide more guidance to states--could damage Title I.

"States have so much freedom under this new law that they can hang themselves, if not individually, then collectively," said Edward D. Roeber, the director of the state assessment program for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, who last year created a task force to study state implementation of Title I.

"At every meeting I have with the feds, they almost come right out and say it: Anything you want to do is fine with us," said a former state official, who asked not to be identified.

Critics charge that Title I's increasingly tenuous position on Capitol Hill, and the Republican majority's dislike of federal prescriptions, has made the Education Department unwilling to take definitive stands on implementation matters. (See Education Week, Nov. 8, 1995.)

"The department is so politically intimidated they were unclear whether they would even suggest models or whether they would suggest what's acceptable and not acceptable" in guidance documents, Ms. McClure said. "They've been far more willing to provide guidance on waivers and flexibility."

The department "is in a very difficult position," Mr. Roeber said. "They can't take a stand at the risk of offending someone."

Guidance, Please

Many state officials would prefer more guidance.

William Erpenbach, the director of divisionwide planning and process for the Wisconsin education department, said he liked the flexibility inherent in the law, but said the flexibility and the lack of guidance from Washington has made policymaking difficult.

"When you talk to policymakers and legislators, they're used to saying, 'Show me where it says that in the law,'" Mr. Erpenbach said.

At a recent conference here, one of several regional meetings the Education Department held to gather input on the agency's draft guidance on Title I assessment and accountability, some state officials seemed overwhelmed. And the 55-page guidance document does not provide the road map they are looking for.

State officials are unsure what standards and assessments the department will consider acceptable.

"Are there conditions under which the federal government might reject a state's standards?" asked Margaret G. Labat, an assistant principal in the District of Columbia school system.

Ms. Labat's question wasn't answered. But Ms. LeTendre said in an interview that if a state's standards "were clearly low-level," department officials would assist the state in improving them.

"I would expect in good faith that this would happen," Ms. LeTendre said. "I don't think there would have to be a standoff."

State officials also raised concerns over the department's guidance on what constitutes "adequate yearly progress."

Zenobia O'Neal, the Title I director in New York state, said the guidance on that topic is vague.

"It doesn't discuss holding schools to those high standards. It gives the impression that there are some other options, that there are some outs," she said. "There have to be statements about responsibility to reach higher standards. This gives the wrong impression."

Ms. LeTendre said the department plans to revise the guidance, but said it would not become more prescriptive.

"We'll be more clear and provide more examples," she said.

Alluding to the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding academic standards and the federal role in education, Ms. LeTendre added, "We can't say, 'This is a definition of what's going to happen to all kids in your state.' People would go bonkers."

Some Aim High

Some states have already adopted rigorous standards for their Title I programs.

In Kansas, for example, officials have decided that the average number of correct answers students in each school achieve should increase by 4 percent within two years, a standard that applies to all schools, not just programs under Title I.

Such progress is to be measured with assessments used for school accreditation as mandated by a 1992 state law. Scores from the 1994-95 school year will be used as the baseline. Kansas uses tests that mix multiple-choice items with other types of questions.

"We couldn't have been in better shape" to comply with the new Title I rules, said Judi Miller, a consultant to the state education agency.

Oregon, which is in the midst of implementing a statewide school-reform agenda, has also adopted performance-based tests and set state standards. Using test scores from this month as the baseline, the definition of "adequate yearly progress" is to be determined by averaging out the percentage gain needed each year to bring a school or district's Title I students to a level of proficiency in 15 years.

Carolyn Moilanen, the Title I coordinator in Portland, Ore., said meeting the state's progress threshold will be "pretty daunting." But she said "we should be able ... to make some of the kinds of progress that are over time going to get our Title I students to meet the goals."

Status Quo

Meanwhile, many Title I officials in states where standards-setting is not as advanced have decided to continue using standardized tests.

Colorado, for example, has decided that during the transition period, adequate yearly progress for a Title I school will be defined as any increase in the percentage of students scoring at or above the average statewide score in the 1995-96 school year.

The minimum standard for a district will be a 10 percent increase in the number of Title I schools that make "adequate progress."

It is hard to set progress goals until Colorado establishes its new testing system, said Wayne Martin, the state assessment director.

"This is embarrassing," he said. "Adequate yearly progress between the first and second year will be any progress until we can get a feel for what it can be like."

In Alabama, state lawmakers last year adopted a new accountability system that requires the use of a norm-referenced test. State education officials decided to use the measure as a transition assessment for Title I, even though a multiple-measure assessment was in the works before the legislature acted, according to Frankie Mitchem, an education department employee who used to coordinate the state's Title I program.

"When we submit our state plan, we'll have to see what they think up in [Washington]," he said.

Ms. LeTendre said the Education Department will have to "live with" such transitional decisions, especially if they are based on the wishes of state legislatures.

Despite the uneven results at the state level, Ms. LeTendre maintained that Title I is already improving.

The program is driving school reform as intended, she said, "to the degree that it's not driving the program a different way, to the degree that it's not setting up something separate and different, and to the degree that it promotes high standards."

And while they express concern about the possibility that some states will drag their feet, other observers agree that progress is being made in transforming Title I from a basic-skills program toward one based on high standards and accountability.

"There is a lot of change going on," Mr. Roeber said.

Vol. 15, Issue 29

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