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Poor and Minority Kids Must Count in NCLB Waivers, Civil Rights Groups Say

By Alyson Klein — October 24, 2014 2 min read
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More than a dozen civil rights and advocacy groups want the U.S. Department of Education to make sure states that want to renew their waivers from the mandates No Child Left Behind Act are looking out for low-income students, minorities, English-language learners, and students in special special education.

Specifically, the organizations want to make sure that states require their schools to give serious weight to those students in school rating systems. And they want the underperformance of those students to “trigger meaningful supports and interventions” in state accountablity systems, as a condition of NCLB waiver renewal, according to a letter the groups sent to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today.

Their letter comes just ahead of the department’s latest guidance to states on what they must do in order to keep their waivers. The department is aiming to release the guidance as soon as mid-November.

The groups include: the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Education Trust, Democrats for Education Reform, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Indian Education Association, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Urban League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

So far, those states with waivers have largely been able to ignore the performance of those students, the groups write:

We have, unfortunately, returned to a time when schools are being sent the message that it is not important for all their students to reach their academic potential. It is critical for ED's waiver renewal guidance to include strong policy regarding student subgroups, as this policy could be in place for up to four years and will set a precedent for the eventual reauthorization of [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] or ESEA."

This isn’t the first time that civil rights groups and organizations representing people with disabilities have lambasted the waivers for their treatment of poor and minority students, English-language learners and students in special education, which are known as “subgroup students” in the wonky lexicon of NCLB.

In fact, many of these same groups raised concerns about how statistical techniques—such as “super subgroups”, which allow states to combine a bunch of different groups for accountability purposes—mask the performance of subgroup kids.

And they’ve also questioned whether the administration is setting a high enough bar when it comes to graduation rates in state’s accountability waivers. Democrats in the House of Representatives, including those representing majority-minority districts, have also expressed similar qualms.

Plus, a recent report from the Education Trust, referenced in the letter, argued that state’s A through F grading systems aren’t putting nearly enough weight on outcomes for poor and minority kids.

Why all the focus on waiver renewal guidance? The guidance, which will govern what the Education Department expects from states seeking to hang on to flexibility from the current version of ESEA, is seen as the Obama administration’ last real shot to put its stamp on the shape of ESEA before it leaves office. The guidance is expected to be released as early as next month.

So will the letter change expectations for waiver states when it comes to subgroup kids? Maybe, these groups have a lot of political clout, especially collectively. But the department generally hasn’t upped the ante for waiver states—instead they’ve tended to try to make the waiver policies easier to execute, by doing things like offering a ton of flexibility on timelines for tying teacher evaluation to student outcomes.