The Obama administration’s proposal to revamp the signature yardstick used to measure schools’ progress under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being seen as a bold step toward revising a key feature of the law, even as questions loom about how a new system would work.
Under the plan, adequate yearly progress, or AYP—the accountability vehicle at the heart of the current version of the law, the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act—would be replaced with a new metric that would measure student progress toward readiness for college or a career.
Though many details remain up in the air, some education advocates say the administration proposal outlined in its fiscal 2011 budget request earlier this week is a good first step.
The administration is “conceptually headed in the right direction,” said Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington based organization that advocates on behalf of poor and minority children. “They’re trying to drag states to more rigorous expectations, … and they’re moving toward a more nuanced set of decisions that don’t make it just pass/fail.”
But some practitioners in the field already are voicing qualms about the feasibility of the proposal.
Mark Bielang, the superintendent of the 2,300-student Paw Paw school system in Michigan, said that injecting such an as-yet-undefined standard of college and career readiness could prove vexing, given how many different skill sets are represented in the spectrum of careers.
In seeking to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Obama administration is trying to significantly revamp the accountability system at the heart of the law’s current version, the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.
NEW ACCOUNTABILITY GOALS
• Set college- and career-ready standards.
• Measure student growth over time.
• Establish a definition of “teacher effectiveness” that relies heavily on student learning.
• Track high school graduation and college-enrollment rates.
• Would the new system retain the current 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency?
• How are “college- and career-ready” standards defined?
• How often would students be tested, using what assessment, and in what subjects?
• Would schools that fail to meet the new goals still be subject to a timetable of penalties?
Source: Education Week
“I don’t know how you collect the data that’s meaningful to say that a school is achieving [the equivalent of] AYP, especially when it comes to a career-readiness standard,” Mr. Bielang said. “Different skills apply to different careers. It seems a lot more like a portfolio-based [assessment] system would be appropriate.”
He added, “How do you determine, for a special education student, what career-ready means for them?”
Those and other questions abound about the proposal: How would college- and career-ready be defined? How would schools—and students—be assessed? What sanctions or interventions would be employed for schools that failed to hit the targets?
And, just as critically, what will Congress make of the plan?
Adequate yearly progress has been among the most publicly visible—and widely debated—portions of the No Child Left Behind law since its inception, with states and districts retooling their assessments, instructional plans, and even schedules in order to meet AYP targets.
Under the current law, schools must test students in reading and mathematics at least once a year in grades 3-8, and once in high school.
Schools that fail to make adequate progress, both for the student population as a whole and for individual subgroups, such as students who are in special education or are members of racial or ethnic minorities, are subject to increasingly serious sanctions.
The law sets a goal of bringing all students to proficiency by the end of the 2013-14 school year, a target that critics have deemed highly unrealistic.
The U.S. Department of Education has not yet determined whether it would keep in place the current law’s 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency, Secretary Arne Duncan said earlier this week. And he has given few other specifics on just how a new metric would work, saying that it is still being discussed on a bipartisan basis with members of Congress and that “everything is on the table.”
Congressional reaction to the proposals has been muted so far, with education leaders in both houses still studying the proposals.
The plan leaves quite a lot for lawmakers and the administration to discuss, education observers say.
Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research organization in Washington, said many educators see the AYP model as “an unfair measure of a school and its effectiveness.” Mr. Jennings, who served as an education aide to House Democrats for nearly three decades, said the challenge will be figuring out what to replace it with.
Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, said that while the proposal is “better marketing,” it remains unclear just what “college- and career-ready” would mean.
For instance, he asked, how would states be able to tell whether their 4th graders were on a trajectory to meet that goal?
Mr. Jennings said the administration is right in trying to overhaul AYP, “the provision that has created all the problems.” Educators see the system as “an unfair measure of a school and its effectiveness.” The challenge will be figuring out what to replace it with, he said.
Vic Klatt, a longtime aide to Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee who now works as a lobbyist for Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington, wanted to know: “What standards are they talking about here? Is there going to be an accountability system based on common standards that don’t exist yet?”
And he said the administration hasn’t yet specified how it would gauge student achievement. For example, would the new law continue to rely primarily on state standardized tests, or would other measures, such as portfolios of student work or local tests, be in the mix?
Question of Enforcement
The proposal also isn’t specific on what sanctions would apply under the revised law for schools that are missing the law’s achievement targets for one or two particular subgroups of students, Mr. Klatt added.
Guidance for the NCLB law’s $546 million School Turnaround grants, which became final late last year, makes clear how the administration wants to transform struggling schools. But it’s less certain what it would do to ensure the students served by those schools are getting a good education in the meantime—particularly if the administration decides to scrap school choice and tutoring provisions in the current law.
Under the plan outlined in the budget proposal, states would be called on to adopt standards that build toward college and career readiness, and implement assessments that were aligned with those standards.
That step would address a perennial criticism of the NCLB law: that it inadvertently encourages states to lower their standards to meet the current targets.
“What we’ve seen in far too many places under No Child Left Behind is that, due to political pressure, … states have dummied down standards [in] what we call a Race to the Bottom,” Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters following the Feb. 1 release of the fiscal 2011 budget plan. “And this dummying down of standards ... absolutely leads to even those students who are graduating being much less prepared to be successful in college.”
The push to include a role for higher standards in the revamped ESEA’s accountability system is likely to build on efforts already under way, Mr. Duncan said.
They include the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association to craft common, rigorous standards across states. So far, 48 states have signed on to the initiative. (“State School Boards Raise Questions About Standards,” Feb. 3, 2010.)
The department also has begun work at helping states revamp their assessments, directing $350 million in federal economic-stimulus funds toward grants to states to develop richer, more uniform tests.
For its part, the fiscal 2011 budget plan includes a proposal to provide $450 million to states to develop assessments. The program would be paid for by combining two smaller programs that last year were financed at a total of $410.7 million.
The budget proposal also calls for states to establish a definition of “teacher effectiveness” that is based “in significant part on student learning” in order to tap money from the $14.5 billion in Title I grants to districts, which would be given the new name of College-and-Career-Ready Students.
States would also be called on to put in place a system that links students’ achievement and academic growth to their teachers and school leaders, according to the budget documents.
Although that requirement isn’t a part of the current AYP system, this isn’t the first time the federal government has put pressure on states to link student and teacher data.
States that have laws on the books prohibiting such links are automatically ineligible to compete for a slice of $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants, which were created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment to reward states that make progress in certain education redesign areas.
Some states, including California, reworked their data laws to boost their shot at snagging a grant. But others, such as Nevada, with arguably similar laws did not.
A revamped ESEA should retain the current law’s focus on using student outcomes to gauge schools’ progress and on closing achievement gaps, Secretary Duncan said. But schools would also be asked to track other measures, including student growth, as well as high school graduation and college-enrollment rates.
“We know that is a lot to track,” Mr. Duncan said. “But if we want to be smarter about accountability, we need to look at all of these factors.”
The secretary has also said that he envisions a new role for incentives in the law’s revamped accountability system.
For instance, if lawmakers pass the ESEA reauthorization this year, the administration would propose a $1 billion budget amendment that would include new money for Title I grants to districts, aimed at rewarding those that have made significant progress in boosting student achievement.
The amendment would also call for new money to help states develop assessments and an increase for after-school programs.
The U.S. Department of Education could unveil its ESEA proposal as early as this month.
Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week