NCLB Waiver Plans Offer Hodgepodge of Grading Systems

By Michele McNeil — December 02, 2011 9 min read
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States seeking waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act are hoping to replace what is widely considered an outdated, but consistent, school accountability regime with a hodgepodge of complex school grading systems that are as diverse as the states themselves.

That’s the picture that emerged from an Education Week analysis of waiver proposals submitted last month to the U.S. Department of Education by 11 states, whose proposals offer insight into what the next generation of state-led accountability looks like.

The applications for federal flexibility under the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, show 11 states aiming for vastly different student-achievement goals, with a jumble of strategies to improve low-performing schools. Even the factors that make up a school’s rating will vary greatly by state, rendering it virtually impossible to compare student performance from one state to another.

But one area most of the 11 states seem to agree on: a hallmark of the law—the emphasis on traditional subgroups of at-risk students, such as minority children, those with special needs, and English-language learners—should be scaled back.

For all its flaws, the No Child Left Behind law brought a certain level of uniformity to school accountability. There was a single goal: to make all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. And there was a single yardstick: whether a school made adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

That would all disappear if the templates laid out in the 11 applications are accepted as the new norm by the U.S. Department of Education.

Outlines Detailed

Eleven states are seeking flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act. To win approval from the U.S. Department of Education, states must address a number of factors, some of which may require state legislative changes.

Among the key elements in states’ plans:

  • The scope and details of their accountability system, including how student subgroups will be treated and if subjects other than math and reading will be included.
  • Academic targets known as “annual measurable objectives.”
  • How they would implement new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporate student growth.
  • Ways to identify an additional 10 percent of their lowest-performing “focus” schools that would also receive special attention.

In some cases, states also spelled out whether they plan to keep supplemental education services, or SES, and public-school choice, along with a required set-aside of Title I funds to pay for them— which were all consequences for schools that failed to make the grade under the NCLB law.


SOURCES: Education Week; State Applications

“Flexibility means a lack of commonality,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which has tracked implementation of the NCLB law since its passage in 2001.

He said as states shift to common standards and common tests, those worries will be eased; nearly all states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. But until those standards and tests go into effect, he said, “it will be very difficult to tell across states what’s happening.”

Given that reauthorization of the ESEA continues to languish in Congress, the waivers that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan approves could set the landscape for school accountability for years to come.

“Some people wondered if states were going to use this as an opportunity to raise the bar or use this as an opening to game the system,” said Scott Palmer, the managing partner at Education Counsel, in Washington, which has worked with a number of states on education accountability plans. “Clearly, we’re seeing they’re trying to raise the bar.”

Wish Lists

The first round of waivers could be issued as early as next month. A second application deadline for remaining states is Feb. 21, although the department will accept proposals on a rolling basis throughout next year. Twenty-eight states, plus the District of Columbia, have said they want to apply in February.

To gain a waiver, states will have to adopt college- and career-ready standards and tie state tests to them, adopt a differentiated accountability system that focuses on 15 percent of their most troubled schools, and craft guidelines for teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that will be based partly on student growth and be used for personnel decisions.

In return, states will no longer have to face the 2014 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency in math and reading, their schools will no longer face NCLB sanctions such as providing school choice, and district officials will have more freedom to move around Title I money for disadvantaged students.

Within the department’s framework, the 11 states have produced greatly different ways—from the simple to the elaborate—to gauge which schools are succeeding, and which aren’t.

Read the Applications

Download the plans of the 11 states that applied for NCLB waivers (in PDF format).

On one end is New Jersey, which would emphasize student proficiency on reading and math in its accountability system, plus graduation rates. On the other end is Oklahoma, which also would factor in performance on science, social studies, and writing, in addition to student growth, improvement among the bottom 25 percent of students, and a slew of “whole school” factors, such as parent engagement.

The rest of the states are somewhere in the middle in terms of what counts for a school’s grade.

Many of states have been operating the accountability systems that they’ve been proposing (or versions of them), in addition to a separate system governed by the NCLB law. Now, they have the chance to meld the two into a single, uniform system.

“I believe schools should have a lot of leeway here,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which favors more flexibility for states. “We don’t want to pull away from the law’s focus on needy, low-achieving kids, so if you can figure out a way to meet that intent, then go for it.”

Although reading and math must remain the core subjects that factor into states’ accountability systems under the new regimes, seven states plan to add at least one other subject, usually science or writing.

For schools, what lies at the end of those accountability mazes is what matters most. Many states have settled on an A-F letter grade. But some states would introduce scores, or indices. Georgia would add colored flags and stars to single out schools in different areas. Tennessee, purposefully, will avoid using the label “failing.” Instead, schools will “miss” their targets.

Subgroup Treatment

One of the most significant deviations the initial 11 states would make from the original NCLB law is backing away from the importance of individual student subgroups in assessing schools’ performance. Indeed, the role of subgroups has been a significant flashpoint in congressional debates about the future of the ESEA.

Reviewing the Requests

The U.S. Department of Education has selected 21 peer reviewers who will vet the applications states submitted for flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act.

KARLA BAEHR, a project lead with the Massachusetts education department

ROBERT BALFANZ, a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University

MONIQUE CHISM, the division administrator for innovation and improvement at the Illinois state board of education

JUDY ELLIOTT, a former chief academic officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District

PETE GOLDSCHMIDT, the director of the division of assessment and accountability for the New Mexico education department

DARIA L. HALL, the director of K-12 policy development for the Education Trust

SUSAN M. HANES, a technical adviser with the Center on Innovation and Improvement

KATI HAYCOCK, the president of the Education Trust

ALLISON HENDERSON, a senior study director at Westat

SARA HEYBURN, a policy adviser at the Tennessee education department

REBECCA KOPRIVA, a senior scientist with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research

CHRISTY L. HOVANETZ, a senior policy fellow at the Foundation for Excellence in Education

SABRINA LAINE, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research

AMY MCINTOSH, a senior fellow with the New York state education department regents research fund

BARBARA M. MEDINA, the director of the English-language acquisition department in the Denver district

RACHEL QUENEMOEN, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes

EDWARD D. ROEBER, an adjunct education professor at Michigan State University

MARTHA THURLOW, the director of the University of Minnesota’s National Center on Educational Outcomes

GABRIELA URO, the manager of English-language-learner policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools

RICHARD J. WENNING, the president of RJW Advisors Inc.

ROSS EMANUEL WIENER, the executive director of the Aspen Institute

Most of the 11 states want to focus on low-performing students as a whole—a U-turn from the NCLB law, in which poor performance by a small cohort of at-risk students could sink a school’s rating.

Seven states—Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Oklahoma—would create new super-subgroups encompassing either the bottom 25 percent of students at each school or traditional subgroups combined into a single unit. The argument these states make is that this new super-subgroup would allow schools to focus on a more specific goal and get around issues with subgroups that don’t have enough students to warrant statistically reliable achievement data. After all, every school has a lowest-performing 25 percent, they say.

“Our school grading law will give triple the weight to improved student achievement among our lowest-performing students, meaning the focus of our schools will, and should be, to help all struggling students and quickly narrow the achievement gap,” said Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the New Mexico education department.

The weight states give to closing achievement gaps is an important factor, said Amy Wilkins, the vice president for government affairs and communications of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of disadvantaged children. (Two leaders at Education Trust, although not Ms. Wilkins, are also serving as the department’s peer reviewers for this waiver process.)

Particularly for states that are devising indexes to rate schools, it’s important to examine how much of a factor closing achievement gaps is in a school’s evaluation, she said. “Gap closing is the North Star,” Ms. Wilkins said.

Even critics of the law admit that one of the NCLB law’s greatest achievements has been shining a light on individual groups of students and holding schools accountable for speeding up their progress. And so there remains one vestige from the law meant to protect subgroups during the waiver process: annual measurable objectives, or AMOs. Those are the annual targets set for students, and subgroups of students, that determine whether a school makes AYP.

Under the waivers, states must still set AMOs by subgroup; however, most of the 11 states wouldn’t give AMOs a prominent role in their accountability systems. And they don’t have to.

While those AMOs are supposed to “guide support and improvement efforts,” according to the Education Department, they won’t determine which schools are turnaround or “focus” schools—the 15 percent of a state’s schools that get the most intervention—nor will they drive when schools can get out from under those labels. The new AMOs also don’t have to be fully integrated into each state’s grading system.

Florida, for example, would set annual targets for subgroups, but hitting or missing them wouldn’t affect a school’s grade. And it’s the grade that’s the main catalyst for support and intervention in Florida’s accountability system.

Massachusetts also acknowledges the backseat AMOs take in its application, saying those targets are meant to provide “transparent reporting” about schools’ progress toward college and career readiness. Meanwhile, a school’s separate index score, which is at the heart of Massachusetts’ accountability system, would be used to identify schools most in need of help.

Indiana wanted to go so far as to replace traditional subgroups entirely in its accountability system.

“We applied with the goal of utilizing our bottom 25 percent in place of the traditional subgroups. We have good data to show that a large portion of the traditional subgroups are included in the bottom 25 percent,” said Alex Damron, a state education department spokesman. However, federal officials have already told the state it must revise its proposal to set achievement targets for traditional subgroups.

Tutoring Loses Out

States’ waiver proposals also reveal another important trend. Most states don’t plan to keep the NCLB law’s universal sanctions for failing schools: supplemental education services, or the tutoring known as SES that’s usually provided by outside organizations, and school choice.

Though not all states explicitly addressed SES and choice in their applications, only Colorado and Oklahoma indicate they want to keep those requirements and that their schools set aside at least a small portion of Title I funding to pay for such service. Georgia wants to replace SES with a new “flexible learning program” that would provide extended learning time for students in low-performing schools. Most other states mention tutoring, in general, as a specific intervention in low-performing schools.

Even if a state ultimately wins a waiver—a decision that rests with Secretary Duncan—the proposals reveal how much more work states have to do to fully usher in this new era of accountability. At least five states would need new legislation to turn their waiver proposals into reality.

The heaviest lifting would have to happen in Georgia, New Jersey, and New Mexico, which all said they needed their legislatures to implement new statewide teacher-evaluation systems that factor in student growth—a key component of the department’s requirements for flexibility.

Mr. Duncan has both promised to maintain a high bar for awarding a waiver and to give the flexibility to any state that wants one.

“We hope Secretary Duncan maintains that high bar,” said New Mexico schools chief Hanna Skandera in an interview, “and calls out states that don’t reach it.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 07, 2011 edition of Education Week as NCLB Waiver Plans Offer Hodgepodge of Grading Systems


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