Spellings Won’t Seek Minimum Subgroup Size For NCLB

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As Congress gears up to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, some state officials are worried that the Department of Education is becoming increasingly less willing to give them leeway in implementing the law. A few even came to a meeting on accountability issues here earlier this month dreading an announcement that the department was planning to push for tougher, more uniform standards for state accountability plans.

Their fears were assuaged—sort of. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the Dec. 8 session that she doesn’t believe in forcing a single standard on states, at least when it comes to one of the more technical, but critical, factors of state accountability plans: a state’s “N” size, or the minimum subgroup size that counts toward schools’ and districts’ accountability under the federal education law.

“I firmly believe that a one-size-fits-all N size is not appropriate,” Ms. Spellings, speaking from Washington via teleconference, told an audience of school superintendents, state accountability directors, and others responsible for carrying out the federal school improvement law at the state level.

The 5-year-old measure, which is slated for reauthorization next year, requires schools to test students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Schools must report on the performance of different subgroups of students, such as racial minorities, as well as the student population as a whole. Those that fail to reach annual achievement targets, or adequate yearly progress, are subject to increasingly serious penalties.

Although Ms. Spellings has worked to offer states more flexibility under the law, some have questioned whether that approach weakens the measure. For instance, the Associated Press reported in a package of articles this year that states were using significantly different N sizes to calculate the progress of subgroups.

States are noticing that the department has been taking a harder line on accountability issues of late. A report released this month by the Council of Chief State School Officers shows that the department isn’t cutting states as much slack as it did last year. ("Chiefs: Ed. Dept. Getting Stingier on NCLB Flexibility," Dec. 13, 2006.)

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO, said at the session here that some states believe they are “swimming against a regulatory stream” and that the Education Department should make sure it “recognizes and supports innovation in the states.”

Best Practices

Some experts invited by the department to the meeting in Nashville explained the reasoning behind a cautious approach to devising and carrying out state accountability plans.

“It’s not easy to design accountability systems that are fair and transparent,” said Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “One issue we want to avoid is false positives. We don’t want to identify schools that are good as being in need of improvement.”

Perhaps more important, Mr. Carey said, accountability systems must make sure they don’t ignore ineffective schools, or else their students might not get the help they need.

Other experts the department invited to the meeting demonstrated how certain tools used by states and approved by the federal department might undermine the law’s goals by failing to pinpoint struggling schools properly.

‘No Child’ Technical Issues

Much of the discussion at the U.S. Department of Education’s recent meeting on state accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act revolved around two technical issues central to state accountability plans:

“N” size refers to the minimum number of students a school or district must have from a particular subgroup, such as English-language learners, for the group to count for accountability purposes under the federal law. N sizes approved by the Education Department range from 75 to 5. Generally, the larger the N size, the easier it is for a school or district to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

Confidence intervals, a statistical technique that makes it easier for schools to make AYP under the law by allowing states to calculate around a margin of error on school performance. The vast majority of states use confidence intervals.

Harold Doran, a senior research scientist at the American Institutes of Research, a social-sciences research organization based in Washington, questioned whether states that use “confidence intervals” were getting an accurate picture of students’ progress. The statistical technique makes it easier for schools to make AYP by allowing states to calculate around a margin of error.

The Education Department also called on state officials to explain some of their best practices in writing accountability plans. For instance, Ronald A. Peiffer, a deputy superintendent in the Maryland state education department, spoke about how his state measures the achievement of subgroups under the federal law. Maryland has the lowest N size of any state—five.

Such presentations were also intended to give states a preview of what topics might come up as Congress begins reworking the law during reauthorization, said Raymond J. Simon, the deputy secretary in the federal department.

“Our purpose was to inform the states of the issues that we hear will cause debate during reauthorization,” he said in an interview. “We think states need to hear that perspective so they understand what folks are saying.”

Reauthorization Preview

Some participants here suggested that the department come up with a tiered system for labeling schools that are not making AYP and establish differentiated consequences for schools, depending on which achievement targets they are missing or how far off the mark they are. Under the current law, schools either meet its targets or don’t.

“It’s an all-or-nothing deal,” Rachelle Tome, the director of accountability and school improvement for the Maine education department, said in an interview.

Some of the participants found the discussion helpful, but wished the department had been more specific earlier on about what it wanted from states.

“I think right now they’re being very transparent. But we should have had this discussion 4½ years ago,” said Helen Maguire, the director of educational improvement and innovation for the Oregon education department. “They’re expecting us to have everything up to speed by now.”

But another state official thought the meeting here was the result of pressure from critics of Secretary Spellings’ more flexible approach on enforcing the NCLB law.

“I don’t feel like this is a dialogue right now,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “This is a not-so-subtle message that we need to be upping our standards. There’s a lot of hostility in this room.”

Vol. 26, Issue 16, Page 23

Published in Print: December 20, 2006, as Spellings Won’t Seek Minimum Subgroup Size for NCLB
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