Spellings to Expand Pilot Test Reversing Order of NCLB Sanctions

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U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced plans to expand a pilot initiative under which school districts may reverse the order of key consequences for schools’ low performance under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The news comes in a May 15 letter to chief state school officers that also warns that the Department of Education is prepared to take “significant enforcement action” against states and districts that fail to meet the federal law’s school choice and supplemental-services requirements, including the possibility of withholding some federal funds.

The secretary drew attention to the letter in a May 17 meeting with reporters, in which she also discussed two other significant developments involving the No Child Left Behind Act. One was the selection of two states for a “growth model” pilot for testing an alternative way of meeting the law’s accountability requirements on student progress. The other was a decision on accountability for several states with large numbers of students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last fall.

On the choice and supplemental-services issue, Secretary Spellings noted in her letter to the state chiefs that recent federal audits revealed a range of shortcomings with how states and districts were carrying out the law’s mandates.

The department is currently testing the idea of reversing the order of the choice and tutoring sanctions in a smaller pilot project in four districts in Virginia. The normal order calls for districts to offer school choice first, in the form of allowing students in lagging schools to transfer to higher-performing public schools, and only later to give students access to supplemental services, such as tutoring. Even many supporters of the No Child Left Behind law have called that order illogical.

Ms. Spellings said that the “positive results” in the Virginia pilot provide evidence that offering the flexibility on a broader scale is warranted. She said that any state that meets certain eligibility criteria may request that up to seven of its school systems—of which two should be rural—receive the new flexibility.

The idea is that districts that fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal law for two consecutive years could offer supplemental educational services instead of public school choice to students. The law says that the choice option must come at that point, and that after a third year of missing performance targets, the district also must offer a choice of supplemental services, including from private providers.

“If we get kids help first before the public-school-choice thing," that "makes sense to me,” Ms. Spellings said in the session with reporters. “Let’s do stuff that works better."

Growth-Model Pilot

Meanwhile, the department announced May 17 that North Carolina and Tennessee were the first states chosen for a pilot program that will allow them to measure AYP under the No Child Left Behind law based on the academic growth that students show from year to year.

Secretary Spellings had announced in November that as many as 10 states would be selected for the “growth model” pilot program.

Twenty states applied, and proposals from eight states were forwarded to a panel of reviewers appointed by the department. In a conference call Wednesday, Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the head of the review panel, said both models chosen were well designed and offered different approaches for meeting the federal law’s goal of full student proficiency by the 2013-14 school year.

Of the eight states reviewed by the panel, the six states not approved—Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, and Oregon—have a chance to digest comments from the review panel and resubmit their applications in September for the 2006-07 school year. Also, in November, other states will have a chance to submit their own growth-model proposals for whatever slots remain.

Under current NCLB rules, schools and districts must meet annual targets for the percentage of students who score at least at the proficient level on state tests. The student population as a whole must be measured, as well as certain subgroups of students, such as students with disabilities, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and students with limited English skills.

In the growth-model pilot, schools may be able to make AYP even if their students do not meet the targets, if the schools can show that the students have made a certain amount of progress over the course of the year.

Hurricane Relief

Secretary Spellings also announced that six states that have taken in large numbers of students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would not be penalized for this school year if those students do not make adequate yearly progress.

The states—Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas—will still have to test displaced students in reading and mathematics as required under the federal law. Schools will also be held to required test-participation rates for those students.

The department had earlier determined that hurricane-displaced students would count as their own subgroup under NCLB. Ms. Spellings said on May 17 that if it is that subgroup that would lead to the labeling of a school or district as being “in need of improvement,” the federal Education Department will allow sanctions to be delayed.

Mississippi, according to federal officials, did not request the AYP relief for displaced students.

Ms. Spellings said it seemed to be common sense to allow such states one year of respite from NCLB sanctions for hurricane-displaced students.

In those states “that have large numbers of students who missed as much as six or eight weeks of school in some cases, obviously [there was] a lack of curriculum alignment” between schools, Ms. Spellings said.

Vol. 25

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