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Chiefs: Ed. Dept. Getting Stingier on NCLB Flexibility

By David J. Hoff — December 12, 2006 3 min read
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Flexibility was the watchword of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ first year in office. But not her second, says a report by state officials who are responsible for carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. Spellings’ 2005 endorsement of what are called growth models as a way to gauge academic progress under the law turned out to be “disappointing,” the Council of Chief State School Officers says in its latest annual evaluation of the Department of Education’s NCLB policies. And many of the requests from states to change under the almost 5-year-old law were turned down throughout the past year, it says.

“As the 2005-06 school year wound down, … it became increasingly clear that the department was moving away from its earlier pronouncement of greater flexibility for states in the law’s implementation,” the state chief’s group says in the report.

Just five of the 20 states that wanted to use growth models have been selected to do so, the report notes.

“Statewide Educational Accountability Under the No Child Left Behind Act—A Report on 2006 Amendments to State Plans” is posted by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

On another matter, the group says, the department became more stringent in allowing states to increase their “N” sizes for use in calculating student progress. That term means the minimum number of students a school or district must have in each racial or other demographic category for that subgroup to be included in determining whether the state or district met its goals for adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

The report is the Washington-based CCSSO’s fourth annual evaluation of how the Education Department and the states negotiate the changes in states’ plans for implementing the No Child Left Behind law, which requires states to annually assess the academic progress of all students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

The law also requires states to publish the names of schools and districts that aren’t making AYP, and schools failing to make AYP for two or more years are required to offer school choice or tutoring. The law has a goal of having all students proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Slow Going?

In the past year, the CCSSO report says, the department’s responses to states “have been notably slower” than in the past, and the agency’s denials of requests for changes have been “far less likely to be documented in writing.” As of September, the department had posted on its Web site written responses to just 30 of the 48 states that requested changes to their accountability plans.

This year’s report, which was released Nov. 28, focuses on the department’s experience with growth models, which determine AYP results based on individual students’ academic growth from one year to the next. The standard AYP model under the federal law compares a group of students with their predecessors from the previous year, such as the 3rd graders in the 2005-06 school year and the 3rd graders in the 2004-05 year.

Winning the department’s approval for growth models has proved harder than many state officials expected. Although the department published criteria for the program, the panel it convened to review applications added its own criteria, said Ellen Forte, the president of edCount, a Washington-based research firm and a co-author of the CCSSO report.

“The peer-review process was particularly opaque,” Ms. Forte said in an interview. “There may have been some biases on the part of some of the reviewers that had an impact on the outcomes.”

The department approved North Carolina and Tennessee to use growth models for AYP determinations in 2005-06, and it later said Arkansas, Delaware, and Florida can join the program for the 2006-07 school year. But the inclusion of Arkansas and Florida is contingent on approval of those states’ testing programs before the end of the school year. (“3 States Get OK to Use ‘Growth Model’ to Gauge AYP,” Nov. 15, 2006.)

The state chiefs’ report says the growth model experiment has been “disappointing in hindsight.”

The process for approving growth models was “thoroughly transparent,” said Katherine McLane, an Education Department spokeswoman. The department’s decisions on the proposals ensured that the approved models met the law’s goal that all students become proficient by 2013-14, she added.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chiefs: Ed. Dept. Getting Stingier on NCLB Flexibility

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