All States Get Federal Nod on Key Plans

By Lynn Olson — June 18, 2003 15 min read
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President Bush, flanked by Secretary Rod Paige

“The era of low expectations and low standards is ending,” President Bush, flanked by Secretary Rod Paige, proclaims in a Rose Garden ceremony marking progress in the ESEA implementation.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

President Bush announced at a White House ceremony last week that every state has a federally approved plan for ensuring that all students are proficient in reading and mathematics by 2013-14.

“The era of low expectations and low standards is ending; a time of great hopes and proven results is arriving,” Mr. Bush said underneath one of the region’s recently rare sunny skies, during the celebratory event in the Rose Garden. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, 28 chief state school officers, principals, teachers, students, and congressional leaders joined Mr. Bush.

State plans for holding schools and districts accountable for the academic performance of all students are, arguably, at the heart of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the president signed into law a year ago in January.

The announcement came on the congressional deadline day for the U.S. Department of Education to review and approve each state’s plan, 120 days after the states were required to submit their plans. In the past few months, the department had accepted plans for 33 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Seventeen more were given the go-ahead the morning of the June 10 deadline.

While most education observers agreed the event marked a major milestone in implementing the law, some wondered exactly what approval means at this point.

“Since the plans themselves, and the basis for approving them, are not yet widely available or publicly available, it’s hard to know what to make of it,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that promotes standards-based education.

“If we’re going to have accountability up and down the line,” he continued, “then it’s really important for the Department of Education review, and approval, and judgment of these plans to be 100 percent transparent.”

Mr. Cohen, who was an assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration, added, “The fact that they have gotten all 50 states to approval either means that they’re awfully and quickly persuasive in getting states to do exactly what the law requires, or they’ve given states a lot of slack in meeting the requirements.”

Every state will receive a follow-up letter from Eugene W. Hickok, the undersecretary of education, that could include a “clarifying statement or two,” said Ron Tomalis, his chief of staff. But, added Mr. Tomalis, who has been designated to oversee the department’s office of elementary and secondary education, “I don’t anticipate any issue in a follow- up letter that has not already been discussed and negotiated with a state.”

States also are free to amend their plans, which some schools chiefs said they might do after seeing what got the nod in other states. But any changes would require department approval.

“It’s interesting because there are still lots of items in our state accountability workbook that we are working on, that we have still not reached a decision about, that we are still negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education,” said Lisa Gross, the spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions.”

Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, encouraged the department to continue to work with states to refine their plans and take advantage of Mr. Hickok’s offer.

Welcome Flexibility

In general, state officials praised the Education Department for listening to states’ concerns and leaving more to states’ own discretion than the officials had initially anticipated. (See the accompanying story, “Education Department Accepts Variety of Strategies.”)

“I think there’s more flexibility than they told us several months ago to expect,” said Tom Horne, the state schools chief in Arizona, “and we’re hoping to use that to avoid the overidentification of failing schools.”

“They’ve given these states a lot of latitude, and they should, to make the law work as best it can in every state,” said Phyllis McClure, a consultant who is analyzing the plans for the Washington-based Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. At the same time, she praised department officials for being consistent in enforcing the law’s key provisions.

Not everyone was pleased. In a letter that accompanied Virginia’s accountability workbook, Mark Christie, the chairman of the state board of education, wrote that the state was “agreeing” to changes in its plan, particularly regarding the testing of students with limited English skills or with disabilities, only because of Education Department mandates.

"[W]e agree only under strong protest,” Mr. Christie wrote, expressing concerns that even schools given the highest rating under Virginia’s accountability system would be viewed as “failing” in some respect under the federal law because of the testing and accountability requirements.

All states submitted draft accountability plans to the federal government by the Jan. 31 deadline. Following an initial review and, in some cases, technical assistance, teams of peer reviewers visited every state. The department used those reviews to help inform its negotiations and provide feedback. Starting over the winter, the department paid for a delegation from every state to visit federal education officials in Washington to discuss its state’s plan.

State officials noted that Undersecretary Hickok was personally involved in many of the negotiations by phone and in person. Ultimately, Secretary Paige signed off on the plans.

“We wanted to make sure that we had a good comprehension of what was going on in the states, so when we did the peer review and when we evaluated the plan, it wasn’t evaluated in a vacuum,” the department’s Mr. Tomalis said.

Even states that didn’t get everything they wanted said the negotiations had been fair.

Federal officials rejected Michigan’s proposal to exempt students with limited English skills from taking state tests if they’ve been enrolled in U.S. schools for less than three years. Instead, the state plans to amend a standardized test that uses a simpler level of English than its state exams to measure the reading and math skills of students who lack the fluency to take part in the regular assessment.

“At the end of the day, we had to capitulate to what the law was,” said Thomas D. Watkins, Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction. “I don’t like stopping at stop signs either, but there are consequences if you don’t.”

‘Special Circumstance’

Although the department did not grant any waivers, it did raise a few eyebrows.

For example, it approved Iowa’s plan, even though the state has no statewide academic-content standards and intends to use two off-the-shelf, norm- referenced tests to measure progress. Federal officials had earlier stressed that states using such tests must augment them, as necessary, to better reflect state standards.

The department also allowed Nebraska’s plan to use a mixture of state and local assessments to measure academic progress. Mr. Paige earlier had warned that such testing systems would face a strong challenge to show they could aggregate results across districts.

Doug Christensen, the state superintendent in Nebraska, said his state was able to present “a ton of data” that show its system works and yields reliable and valid results. “I think it’s what turned the corner with the staff at the [federal] department,” he said.

Similarly, Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa education department, said his state had provided “a lot of information and analysis” to show its tests covered what was necessary—"frankly, much more than adequate, to demonstrate proficiency in reading and math.”

Mr. Tomalis said both Nebraska and Iowa represented a “special circumstance,” based on a provision in the ESEA that allows additional leeway in states that lack the authority, under state law, to adopt statewide standards and tests.

Maine officials, meanwhile, hope to decide by next month whether to use local testing systems in some grades to meet the federal law’s requirements.

And Pennsylvania abandoned its proposal to use a mixture of state and local assessments. “To do that kind of mixed model at each grade level was more technically difficult, more costly, more difficult to get the results in the end,” said Vicki L. Phillips, the new state superintendent.

Instead, Pennsylvania plans to devise state tests in each grade required by the federal law, but to make them more instructionally sensitive than existing exams.

Mr. Tomalis said the Education Department would put states’ standards- and-assessment systems through a separate peer review, as states’ existing waivers under the 1994 version of the law expire, or as soon as states feel ready to have their testing systems fully approved under the new law.

Federal officials also agreed to plans in states that are still working to get their accountability systems revised or accepted by state legislatures and boards of education.

Missouri has convened a work group to study how to align its state regulations with the federal requirements by next January. California’s plan notes that it will require “extensive legislative and regulatory changes” to align the state and federal policies for intervening in underperforming schools, a process that will take at least two years because of its complexity.

Other states still must set annual and intermediate targets for improvement based on the results of new state tests.

“There’s no way that these steps, in many states, could have been accomplished in a short time period,” said Mr. Tomalis. As a result, he said, “the plan was approved on the condition that they were going to do these things.”

“States have worked extremely hard at the highest levels to address these plans and to implement ‘adequate yearly progress’ in their unique state context,” said Scott R. Palmer, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Nixon Peabody, which has provided technical assistance to several states. “I think it’s been a learning curve for the states and for the department, frankly.”

Continued Concern

States have been particularly concerned about the law’s detailed formula for determining what constitutes adequate yearly progress, or AYP—the annual performance levels schools must meet to avoid being identified as needing improvement.

Initial simulations in a number of states projected that hundreds of schools would fail to meet their targets and be designated as needing improvement after a few years, including many that the public perceives to be doing well.

Such projections occurred, in part, because schools must meet their targets for the student population as a whole and for individual subgroups, such as racial- and ethnic-minority students and those from poor families.

Those projections also reflected the fact that the law requires substantial—some contend “extraordinary"—growth each year to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2013-14.

Although state officials have used the breathing space they’ve found in the law to try to reduce the numbers of schools likely to need improvement, many officials continued to worry last week.

“I think the number of schools that we anticipate identifying in Vermont continues to be a concern for us,” said David C. Larsen, the state superintendent there.

“I would expect nationwide that a fairly large number of schools won’t make AYP,” said Florida Commissioner of Education Jim Horne. “So be it. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re not making progress in helping one of those groups that needs help.”

“I think there are still going to be very large numbers,” said Michael E. Ward, North Carolina’s superintendent of education. He remains concerned that the law does not distinguish between penalties for schools that are “missing by a little and those missing by a mile.”

“It’s going to take a lot of explaining,” Mr. Ward said. “Frankly, one of our most intensive efforts has been around a communication plan.”

In reporting schools that need improvement, for instance, Connecticut plans to differentiate between those that missed their targets in multiple areas, those that missed their targets for a subgroup, and those that missed the target for the additional academic indicator the law requires.

The state also will note whether the percent of students proficient in reading and math has increased, decreased, or remained steady compared with the prior year.

Indeed, explaining to residents how their “unified” system of accountability works may pose one of the greatest difficulties for states. In part, that’s because the extent to which states have succeeded in seamlessly meshing their existing accountability systems with the No Child Left Behind requirements varies.

Some states, such as Maryland, will use the determination of whether schools make adequate progress as the sole measure for identifying schools for rewards or punishments. But such penalties as allowing students to transfer to other, higher-performing public schools or providing students with supplemental tutoring services will be enforced only in the state’s schools that get federal Title I money.

Other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, will continue to use their existing accountability systems, but will also identify all schools as making or not making adequate progress under federal law.

And a few states have added requirements for adequate progress that incorporate their existing accountability ratings.

For example, in Louisiana, schools identified as “academically unacceptable” under the state system or that fail to meet school growth targets will be identified as not making adequate progress, even if they meet the federal requirements. Florida also will identify schools as failing to make progress if they receive a D or F under the state’s existing system. And California will use its existing accountability index as its “other” indicator.

“Florida is well-invested in our accountability system,” said Commissioner Horne. “We felt like Florida has gone further ahead in accountability than the federal system. We had no interest in wanting to chuck Florida’s system.”

The big concern is that states not establish “dual” systems—one for schools receiving Title I money and one for everyone else—as had been true for many states under the 1994 version of the ESEA. Groups such as the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights will be tracking that issue closely.

Given the poor budget climate, state officials also remain worried about whether they’ll have the money to carry out all the law’s provisions, from formulating new assessments to ensuring a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom. Most states also need to set up more robust data systems to satisfy the ESEA demands.

“Funding continues to be a concern,” said Superintendent Larsen of Vermont.

But Mr. Horne of Florida contended that the federal money is adequate. “Of course, everyone wants more money,” he said. But he said that, while Florida isn’t starting from scratch like some other states, that’s because it has invested substantial money in its accountability system.

In his speech last week, President Bush asserted that the federal government is “meeting our obligations,” noting that his proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year would boost education funding to $53.1 billion, an increase of nearly $11 billion since he took office.

But, he warned, “it’s also important to recognize that pouring money into systems that do not teach and refuse to change will not help children.”

Unresolved Issues

States are still struggling to interpret some of the more contentious of the accountability provisions, particularly those related to students with limited command of English or with disabilities. State leaders have expressed concerns about testing the reading and math skills of students in English while they are still mastering the language. States are also worried that once students become proficient in English, they will move out of the limited-English subgroup, so that it will be hard for the subgroup ever to meet its performance targets.

Some states—such as Illinois, South Carolina, and Tennessee—are taking advantage of flexibility in the federal statute and will count the scores of students with limited English in that subgroup until they score at the “proficient” level on state tests of English adeptness for two or three years in a row.

Texas will include students in the limited-English subgroup until they score at the “met standard” level on the state’s English reading test for two consecutive years after entering a regular, all-English instructional program. California will include students in that subgroup until they’ve attained the “proficient” level on the state test in English/language arts for three years running.

How to test students with the most severe cognitive disabilities and include the results in measuring adequate progress remains contentious. The Education Department released a proposed rule on that topic this spring, but has yet to issue final regulations. According to Mr. Tomalis, every state plan raised questions about special education testing. He said the states could expect to see additional communications from the department on the issue shortly.

Virginia is particularly upset that it must apply the federal government’s policies retroactively to the 2002-03 school year, even though districts weren’t told of the policy at that time. That could result in some students’ being counted as “non-participants” in the testing system.

Despite concerns, Mr. Ward of North Carolina said, “This has been an important first step.”

Research Associates Susan E. Ansell, Melissa McCabe, Jennifer Park, and Lisa N. Staresina helped collect states’ approved accountability plans for this story.


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