Education Funding

Bill Comes Due on Race to Top’s Varied Goals

By Michele McNeil — September 28, 2011 11 min read
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Winners of the $4 billion Race to the Top jackpot committed to grand goals in using the federal grants to raise student achievement, as measured by higher test scores, narrowed achievement gaps, and increased graduation and college-going rates—all in four years.

Now comes the hard part: With the money in hand, the 11 states and the District of Columbia must deliver on those goals, which often involve making leaps in student achievement at a record-setting pace. For most states, that amounts to a long shot.

From the U.S. Department of Education’s perspective, that may not be a bad thing.

“Interestingly, when you look at some of those states with the most ambitious goals, these are the same states that are some of the best actors. They are tenacious and aggressive and really trying hard to meet those goals,” said Joanne Weiss, the former director of the Race to the Top and now the chief of staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The winners’ success in meeting their goals—which earned them a certain number of points in the hard-fought grant competition last year—will offer a report card, of sorts, on the aggressive, multistate education improvement initiative launched as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Many Goals of Race to the Top

The 12 states that won money from President Obama’s Race to the Top program now have set widely varying goals in which to improve achievement.

Most of the winners aimed high as they sought to woo the competition’s judges, even though the goals they set to improve student achievement carried limited weight in the scoring system. For example:

• The District of Columbia intends to lift its college-going rate by 20 percentage points, from 39 percent, the most of any Race to the Top winner.

• Rhode Island aspires to increase its proficiency rates in math on the 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, by 27 percentage points over the five-year period, from 28 percent, something no other state has accomplished in so little time.

• And Maryland wants to eliminate achievement gaps among all student subgroups, including minority students and English-language learners, on state tests by 2014.

Those goals may be out of reach, many observers say.

“Nothing involving achievement changes fast in a great big country like this. Most of the time, things don’t change at all. Moving a state is a lot harder than moving an aircraft carrier,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who led the Education Department’s research and improvement branch during the Reagan administration. But at the same time, Mr. Finn said, “something has to happen to the kids for this to be worth doing. We cannot just be rearranging the adult deck chairs.”

If states don’t meet their goals, nothing happens from the department’s perspective—since those are goals set for the end of the four-year grant period.

That’s not to say the department won’t be monitoring the goals, such as by taking note of 2011 NAEP scores among Race to the Top states. The federal agency already is monitoring a slew of performance measures to make sure states live up to their end of the bargain.

What’s more, said Ann Whalen, a top aide to Secretary Duncan, keeping tabs on states’ student-achievement levels is part of the department’s ongoing process to hold them accountable for their Race to the Top proposals.

“It really keeps a laser-like focus on improving achievement and closing gaps,” said Ms. Whalen, the director of the Education Department’s implementation and support unit.

Judging the Goals

Policy advocates, politicians, and the media have chronicled what Race to the Top applicants did to win the grants, such as changing teacher-evaluation policies and opening the way to an expansion of charter schools. And they’ve examined what the winners plan to do with their money, such as hiring “data coaches” and rebuilding education data systems.

Examples of Race to the Top Goals

As part of last year’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition, states had to set goals for how much student achievement would improve if they won a four-year grant. They did so in the areas of: test scores, including on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; achievement gap; graduation rates; and college-going and college-attainment rates. Examples of the goals set by the 12 winners include:


SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Down the road, there will be some official assessment by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, which is undertaking two studies.

The first is part of a broader study of the $100 billion in education spending from the ARRA, the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package. That four-year, $10 million study will look at how ARRA-related programs, including the Race to the Top, were implemented, and whether student outcomes improved.

The second is a five-year, $13 million study of the Race to the Top and the federal School Improvement Grant program. Researchers will examine how well those two programs were implemented, and whether they improved student outcomes in low-performing schools.

But little attention has been paid in the meantime to the Race to the Top endgame: the student-achievement gains each state is shooting for.

For what would seem to be an important marker, the goals were worth few points in a competition judged on a 500-point grading scale. Indeed, Education Department officials debated the role goals should play in the competition.

When the Race to the Top was being crafted, they discussed requiring states to meet annual student-achievement goals (rather than four- or five-year ones), but eventually rejected that path because year-to-year ups and downs can occur even as states make steady progress. Also, the department decided against setting minimum goals for the states because the student-achievement picture was so different across the country.

And finally, department officials debated how much weight the goals would receive in the scoring system. By making states’ goals worth few points, the department hoped to head off sky-high, unrealistic targets.

When it came time to judge the Race to the Top applications, the outside peer reviewers were told to grade states on whether their goals were “ambitious yet achievable.”

As was the case with the other scoring categories, the judges took widely varied approaches in their grading. Several didn’t even acknowledge the goals, some repeated them and awarded points because they were included, and only a few offered commentary on just how achievable and ambitious the goals actually were.

Delaware was cited by one judge as not being “ambitious” enough for aspiring to a 55 percent proficiency rate on NAEP, which, for 8th grade math, would be a 23-percentage-point increase—still far better than what any other state has accomplished in just a few years. But no judge criticized Tennessee for aiming for a 37 percent proficiency rate on the same test, a 14-percentage-point increase.

Some of New York’s judges were particularly hard on the state for not aiming for higher gains for minority and high-needs students. The state wants to narrow achievement gaps on NAEP by just a few percentage points for groups such as minority students and English-language learners within four years. Nationally, those same gaps have barely budged in years. Still, one judge saw New York’s target as too low, calling it “disturbing.”

But Maryland’s far more ambitious goal of completely eliminating achievement gaps earned criticism, too. “The extent to which [the goals] are achievable, especially for different subgroups, is questionable, as are the goals themselves,” one judge wrote.

Scattered Targets

An Education Week examination of the winners’ Race to the Top applications shows a wide range of aspirations for what they hope to achieve with their share of the $4 billion.

Hawaii, for example, set of goal of being at the national median on all NAEP tests by 2018.

Ohio wants to boost its 8th grade math proficiency rate on NAEP by 6 percentage points, and its graduation rate by 2 percentage points, to 88 percent.

The District of Columbia wants to increase graduation and college-going rates at a faster pace than any other Race to the Top grantee—goals that left one judge asking whether that was a “moonshot,” referring to the term Mr. Duncan has often used to describe the Race to the Top.

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Rhode Island is aiming for one of the steepest trajectories, especially on NAEP. In 8th grade math, for example, the state wants to increase its proficiency rate 27 percentage points.

No state has come close to that rate of improvement, including Massachusetts, which has seen some of the biggest growth in NAEP scores in the country. During Massachusetts’ best six years, from 2000 to 2005, that state’s scores in 8th grade math grew 13 percentage points.

“We do believe it’s possible to meet these goals,” said Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist. “If you set a goal you know you can meet, you’re just not stretching yourself as far as you could.”

According to Rhode Island’s plan, the state set its goal by studying schools that had made rapid student-achievement gains of 10 to 20 percentage points on various metrics—with the idea that the state, through the Race to the Top, could replicate that improvement statewide.

One goal which Ms. Gist thinks could be especially challenging: math proficiency in high school. In the 2010-11 school year, only 33 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math on the state test. The state’s goal? Seventy-five percent proficiency.

“Our current proficiency level is just so unacceptable. Any other goal just felt unsatisfying,” Ms. Gist said. She noted that the state’s plan calls for directing more Race to Top resources into high school math.

Achievement Gap Focus

Massachusetts, which often boasts the highest achievement in the country, also has some of the largest achievement gaps between black and white students, and low-income and wealthier students.

“What we’re looking at is continuing improvement but picking up the pace, and at the same time accelerating the improvement for those furthest behind,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of education.

To set the state’s goals, Mr. Chester said, Massachusetts officials looked at the rate of improvement over the last several years, and bumped it up a notch. One of the state’s core objectives is reducing achievement gaps by 25 percent on NAEP and 15 percent in high school graduation rates.

“I do believe in four years’ time it is possible and important to demonstrate some tangible, measurable, substantial improvements in student outcomes,” Mr. Chester said. “That’s the bottom line here. We can’t wait 10 years.”

Massachusetts officials will watch some midpoint indicators to see if the state is on the right track, including reading in the early elementary grades, middle school math, and overall achievement in the lowest-performing schools.

“I think there’s tension about how we judge that success in looking for short-term numbers. There’s important table-setting going on,” Mr. Chester said. Speaking of other Race to the Top winners, he said that some states may not hit their goals, but may have put landmark policies in place that will pave the way for long-term improvement.

“We have to be more nuanced in judging this,” he said.

Weighing Success

Experts in education research agree it will take time to judge the ultimate success, or failure, of the Race to the Top, given how long it can take for policy changes to translate into test-score gains. And it will be difficult to figure out whether it was the Race to the Top, and not some other education improvement effort or even a change in demographics, that caused any improvement.

“It’s important to differentiate between aspiration and tangible goals to set for a system,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Knowledge Alliance, which represents such research groups as the federal regional education laboratories.

“We’re going to get a lot of anecdotal evidence, and may see correlation over time,” he said. “But maybe the question to ask is, how much has Race to the Top changed actual policy?”

In most winning states, the achievement targets aren’t just Race to the Top goals, they’re also state education goals.

Take Tennessee, for example. Its goals, which include halving achievement gaps on NAEP and boosting college-going rates by 9 percentage points by 2014, are embedded in its request to obtain a waiver from certain provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Obama administration last week released details of its plan to provide regulatory relief from many key parts of the NCLB law, including the goal that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Several states, including Tennessee, submitted requests before the final rules were even announced.

“All of these [Race to the Top] reforms are predicated on a commitment to setting ambitious but realistic goals,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman wrote in a July 29 letter to Mr. Duncan, asking for flexibility under NCLB. “To be clear, if we are able to achieve the ... top-line goals, Tennessee’s public education system will be on a completely different trajectory.”

For education policy advocates, who are watching the progress in Race to the Top states, setting goals—even high ones—is the easy part.

“If you’re going to set an ambitious goal, how do you line up the resources to get there,” said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications at the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates educational improvement for disadvantaged students. “The hard work comes in implementation.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2011 edition of Education Week


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