‘Approved’ Is Relative Term for Ed. Dept.

By Lynn Olson — August 06, 2003 11 min read
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At a Rose Garden ceremony in June, President Bush proclaimed that every state had a federally approved plan for ensuring that all students are proficient in reading and math by 2013-14. But follow-up letters lay out a host of conditions that states must meet before their accountability plans under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 are deemed “fully approved.”

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View our table breaking down the states’ accountability plans: PDF version | Excel version.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education told only five states—Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Oregon, and Texas—that their plans were fully approved as of July 1. Another six—Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming—heard that they would receive final approval as soon as they confirmed that interpretations of specified provisions in their plans were correct.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia still need to have their accountability plans approved by their state school boards or legislatures to bring them into compliance with the law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Many more must provide additional information to the Education Department before receiving full approval.

An analysis of state accountability plans, conducted by Education Week, shows just how far many states have to go, as well as some of the choices they have made in designing their accountability systems.

In Ohio, state lawmakers plan to hold a special session starting this week to try to pass accountability legislation and avert the potential loss of millions of dollars in federal aid. If the state does not pass the bill before the start of the school year, Washington has threatened to withhold some or all of Ohio’s $3.9 million in state administrative funds under the Title I program for 2003. It also could withhold some or all of the nearly $400 million in Title I allocations to districts.

The issue, said Ronald Tomalis, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Education Department, is that without the state legislation, Ohio cannot make determinations about whether schools have made adequate progress before the start of the coming school year, as required by the federal law.

“We said they would not be in compliance and that we would withhold $400 million,” said Mr. Tomalis. “It’s very explicit in the letter.”

State Rep. John M. Schlichter, a Republican, said federal officials had indicated all along “they were going to be firm on deadlines, so we shouldn’t be surprised.” Chances of passing the bill to rectifying the matter are good, he said.

Under the federal law, states must set annual achievement goals for schools, known as “adequate yearly progress,” so that all students score at the “proficient” level on state tests in reading and mathematics by 2013-14. Schools must meet those targets for their entire student populations and for subgroups of students by race, income, disability, and limited fluency in English.

To satisfy the provision, schools also must test 95 percent of all students and those in each subgroup and show gains on at least one other academic indicator— graduation rates for high schools and, typically, attendance rates for elementary and middle schools.

Education Department officials have repeatedly said states would risk losing federal money if they did not identify schools failing to make adequate progress before the new school year begins. The vast majority of states had yet to release those lists by late last week, though most had promised to do so this month.

Testing Systems in Flux

Meanwhile, many states are still trying to put in place the assessment programs to comply with the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA, which required testing students in reading and math at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.

William J. Erpenbach, a consultant who participated in some of the department’s peer reviews of state accountability plans, said it was hard to judge those plans in the absence of information about the assessments that are at the heart of state accountability systems.

“It’s impossible to look at an accountability system and make a decision about whether it meets the requirements of No Child Left Behind if you don’t know the status of the assessment system that underlies it,” he said.

An analysis of state accountability plans conducted for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers by Mr. Erpenbach and co-authors Ellen Forte-Fast and Abigail Potts cautions that as states make the transition from one set of tests to another, the process may result in making determinations about adequate progress that are “unwieldy at best.”

“In some states, the scores on which AYP are based will vary over time,” the authors note, “yet schools and districts will be required to continue making steady improvements in their achievement scores.”

The analysis, which also questions whether the Education Department was entirely consistent or clear in its decisions about what was permissible in state plans, is available on the council’s Web site at

The Education Department’s Mr. Tomalis said the accountability plans “are basically the framework on which the entire public education system is going to move forward.” While the assessments are important, he argued, “if we waited to say that we can’t implement an accountability plan until everything was up and running—and running perfectly— then a lot of these states that change things so often would never have their accountability plan in place and operating.”

“This is about students,” he added, “and to keep on delaying and delaying and delaying accountability plans wouldn’t do justice to the students.”

Funds Withheld

In June, federal officials announced that they were withholding nearly $800,000 from Georgia—or 25 percent of its administrative aid under Title I for the 2002-03 school year—for violating its timeline waiver under the 1994 law. It is the first time in recent memory that the federal government has withheld money from a state for violating provisions under the ESEA.

Georgia had pledged to give new end-of-course tests in high school this past spring that would be aligned with its academic-content standards, but failed to do so.

Federal education officials plan to conduct a separate peer review of states’ standards and testing systems for compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, but have not yet devised a schedule for doing so. They have already notified some states whose plans were approved under the 1994 legislation that changes they have made since then will require additional peer review and approval, even before considering the 2001 requirements.

States also are awaiting final rules about how to include the scores of certain students with disabilities in accountability ratings, particularly when students take tests that are not geared to grade-level standards.

The Education Department had previously signaled that the use of out-of-level tests for certain students with disabilities who are working below grade level would violate federal law. Out-of-level tests were designed for a grade other than the one in which the student is enrolled.

But in a June 27 letter to state schools chiefs, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige wrote that states that permitted such “instructional level” tests during the 2002-03 school year, based on the recommendations of the individualized education plan required for a student with disabilities, could use the results to calculate adequate progress for the 2003-04 school year only.

States such as Mississippi, South Carolina, and Vermont, which are still using such exams, were relieved.

“No question it does help,” said Bud Meyers, the deputy commissioner for standards and assessments for the Vermont education department. But, he said, the relief was only temporary, since it would take the state at least two years to design a wider range of measures for all the students who now take out-of-level tests.

Maine officials still were debating late last week how to measure achievement in grades 3-8 for calculating adequate progress. The state uses a combination of state and local assessments to measure its academic standards, and officials there remain committed to the value of locally generated tests. They have joined a compact of New England states—including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—that may collaborate to craft tests for some of the required grade levels.

“At this point, we haven’t ruled anything out in our discussions,” said Horace “Brud” Maxcy, Maine’s assessment director.

Data on Impact Requested

The federal Education Department also indicated in its follow-up letters that it wanted to see more data from some states that have proposed using a statistical technique, known as a “confidence interval,” to increase the reliability of their accountability plans. Many of those states are trying to ensure that they identify low- performing schools or student subgroups with 95 percent or 99 percent certainty.

A small number of states plan to apply the statistical technique, or a similar one, to the other academic indicators used to calculate adequate progress, such as graduation rates, or to their “safe harbor” calculations. The latter is designed to provide a further look at schools that fail to meet their annual targets but may still have made significant progress.

“The use of this statistical test is acceptable for making AYP determinations this school year,” the letters to the four states note. But the department asked for “impact data,” as soon as such information is available, “for further review and consideration.”

Under the law, states also are permitted to combine test scores over several years or grade levels in making decisions about schools—again, to increase the reliability of those judgments. That technique is known as “uniform averaging” because it is meant to be applied the same way statewide.

But at least nine states and Puerto Rico have proposed comparing the current year’s test results for a school or district with an average of the most recent two or three years and using whichever is most favorable to make determinations on adequate progress. Again, the Education Department has requested more information.

“When we were going through the discussions about accountability plans, some states came up with unique and novel approaches to implementing it,” said Mr. Tomalis, the acting assistant secretary. “Rather than blatantly saying, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ we said, ‘Let’s give it a try, see how the data come back, and make sure that this is a statistically valid and reliable determination before we say blanketly, you can do this.’ ”

Finally, the department is continuing to negotiate with some states about elements of their accountability plans. Many have been struggling with how to meet the accountability requirements in the federal law while maintaining the core of their existing systems. In North Carolina, for example, schools may be designated as “Schools of Excellence” under the state’s ABCs plan even if they didn’t make adequate progress under federal law.

“Should the data demonstrate an inconsistency between the highest ABCs recognition category (“Schools of Excellence”) and the AYP determination, we would expect North Carolina to re-examine and change the policy,” Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, who is also the department’s acting deputy secretary, wrote in a letter to state Superintendent Michael E. Ward.

Kay Williams, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina education department, said the state board of education plans to take another look at the recognition categories this fall. The state already has tied its cash bonuses for schools to their ratings on adequate yearly progress, “so we certainly are taking this very seriously,” she said.

Leaving Students Behind?

Meanwhile, Kentucky is battling to retain core elements of its accountability system. Under the state system, a school is held accountable for the performance of all students enrolled in the school on the day of testing. But under federal law, a school is accountable only for the performance of students enrolled in the school for a full academic year.

In some inner-city schools with high mobility rates, said Kentucky Deputy Commissioner of Education Kevin M. Noland, upwards of 50 percent of students in a classroom move at least once during the school year. “So to apply what the U.S. Department of Education is requiring would force us to leave 40 percent to 50 percent of those students behind,” he said.

Federal officials said that they tried to be flexible, but that the law’s language on full academic year is explicit.

“The big question about all of this is, since we’re on the same page philosophically, why is this thing so hard?” said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens’ advocacy group in Kentucky, and a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.

“I don’t understand their focus on procedures rather than results,” he said. “We’re going to have to do incredible gyrations to keep this from disrupting and throwing off track our state system, which is getting results and which everybody recognizes is a good, effective approach that’s been worked on for 12 years. It defies any test of common sense.”

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