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Rules Mandate Uniform Graduation Rates

By David J. Hoff — October 28, 2008 7 min read
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The Bush administration put its final stamp on the No Child Left Behind Act last week, leaving the next president’s team the task of enforcing a wide-ranging set of new regulations governing the law.

The rules will require states to adopt the same method of calculating high school graduation rates; mandate that school districts take additional steps to ensure students in low-performing schools know they’re eligible to transfer to other public schools or enroll in free tutoring; and direct states to make public information comparing student achievement on their own tests against national-assessment scores.

The regulations “will help us build on the progress of No Child Left Behind and set the table until Congress can act on this legislation,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in announcing the rules Oct. 28 at Columbia High School in Columbia, S.C. Her speech was broadcast on the Web by South Carolina Educational Television.

Federal lawmakers had been scheduled to reauthorize the nearly 7-year-old law in the two years of the 110th Congress soon coming to a close, but they could not reach agreement on revisions. The reauthorization is expected to be taken up in the new Congress that convenes in January.

The final regulations, published Oct. 29 in the Federal Register, include minor changes to the proposal the Department of Education unveiled in April. (“NCLB Plan Would Add New Rules,” April 30, 2008.) The regulations, which cover the NCLB law’s Title I program designed to address the academic needs of disadvantaged students, go into effect Nov. 28.

Congressional Endorsement

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the most important advocates of the NCLB law, supports the department’s rules package.

The rules are a “significant step forward in helping schools, parents, and teachers bring new solutions to the challenges of helping every child get ahead in school,” Sen. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said in a statement.

“The new regulations will allow schools to innovate while Congress works on new legislation to improve and strengthen the No Child Left Behind law,” he said.

Final NCLB Rules

U.S. Department of Education regulations, issued last week for the No Child Left Behind Act will add new requirements on states, districts, and schools in several areas:

Subgroup Size

States must re-evaluate their minimum number of students for specified demographic “subgroups” that a district or school must have to be held accountable for that subgroup. The number, referred to as an “n” size, now must be “no larger than necessary to ensure the protection of privacy for individuals” and to ensure statistical accuracy.

NAEP Scores

States need to publish their reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress alongside the scores from their own tests. Districts also will be required to list their states’ NAEP scores when publishing their own scores on state tests.

Growth Models

All states will be eligible to participate in the Education Department’s experimental program to make accountability decisions based on the growth of student achievement. The method in the law compares the achievement of student cohorts with that of cohorts from the previous year.

Testing Higher-Order Skills

The rules clarify that states’ tests should include questions “that measure both higher-order thinking skills ... as well as knowledge and recall items to assess the depth and breadth of mastery of a particular content domain.”

Source: Education Week

The senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee also praised the regulations, particularly the sections that require districts to increase their outreach to parents for students who qualify to transfer to another school or for free tutoring.

“While hundreds of thousands of students have already been able to take advantage of these new choices, many more stand to benefit from the reforms outlined today,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said in a statement.

But one education lobbyist said the rules are an attempt by the Bush administration to use its administrative power to enact policies it had proposed to include in a reauthorized NCLB law.

“They’re moving down the regulatory path to legislate,” said David Shreve, the federal-affairs counsel for education for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That’s just a bad move.”

For example, the administration had proposed requiring districts to improve access to public school choice and free tutoring for students whose schools failed to make their achievement goals under the law.

Under the regulations, districts now are going to be required to abide by those proposals, even though Congress never formally endorsed them, Mr. Shreve said.

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, questioned whether the new regulations—coming less than three months before the start of a new administration—are the best way to help states comply with the law.

The rules will require states to update their formal plans, called workbooks, that explain how they will implement key elements of the NCLB law. Those workbooks, changes to which the federal Education Department must approve, explain how states will develop academic-content standards, assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and hold schools accountable for student performance based on the goal that all students will be proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Any such changes are usually submitted to the department in February of a given year, said Mr. Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the 3.2 million-member nea. The next president will take office Jan. 20.

“It’s just going to create confusion and uncertainty,” Mr. Packer said.

Acting Now

The No Child Left Behind Act is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the main federal law in K-12 education. President Bush championed NCLB as a way to make schools more accountable for raising achievement. Congress passed the measure overwhelmingly in late 2001, and Mr. Bush signed it into law in January 2002.

In an Oct. 29 conference call with reporters, Secretary Spellings said she published the new rules because they address problems in the NCLB law.

The new administration will take “a while to get organized” and is unlikely to reach a quick agreement with Congress on reauthorizing the law, she said.

“In the meantime,” she said, “we need ... to make the law work as best as we can.”

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings reacts as she tries to speak Mandarin Chinese during a tour at Columbia High School on Oct. 28. Secretary Spellings was visiting the Columbia, S.C., school to unveil final regulations for the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. Spellings said that she and her staff worked to ensure that the rules reflected the desires of federal lawmakers and state officials.

“There’s a responsibility and an expectation ... that some appropriate and necessary flexibility and changes be put in place,” she said.

Common Graduation Rate

But critics say the regulations include restrictive provisions and reflect the Bush administration’s objectives more than what policymakers and educators want.

“It’s a pretty open attempt to reauthorize and do things that the administration wants,” said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va.

In his statement, Sen. Kennedy specifically applauded the regulations’ requirement that states adopt the same method of calculating high school graduation rates.

Under the rules, states must track the percentage of students graduating within four years of entering high school. The rules say that the Education Department will consider states’ proposals to count students who graduate within six years as completing on time.

States must report data based on the new method in the 2009-10 school year. In addition to publishing the overall rate, schools must publish the rates for students in specified racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic subgroups, as well as for students with disabilities and for English-language learners.

By the 2011-12 school year, states must use the new method of calculating graduation rates as one of the measures to determine whether high schools make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the method of determining whether a school is meeting its goals under the law. That’s one year later than the Education Department had proposed in the draft regulations.

The requirements on graduation rates reflect what governors voluntarily committed to do in a 50-state agreement organized by the National Governors Association in 2005. (“Efforts Seek Better Data on Graduates,” July 27, 2005.)

Just about every state will be ready to comply with the rules starting in the 2011-12 school year, said Dane Linn, the director of the NGA’s education policy division.

Under the rules, schools also will be held accountable for improving graduation rates for every subgroup of students.

“We need to know who’s graduating and who’s not ... so we can catch the kids who are at risk of dropping out,” said Daria Hall, the assistant director for K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that supports the new rules.

The rules also make changes intended to expand student participation in public school choice and free tutoring, also known as supplemental education services, or SES.

Expanding Student Options

The rules will require schools to work with community groups to advertise the supplemental services, which districts underwrite with money available under the NCLB law. The rules also specify information about SES that districts must post on their Web sites. Students are eligible for services if their school misses AYP for three years.

Under the school choice portion of the regulations, schools must inform parents two weeks before the start of the academic year that their child at a school that misses AYP for two years is eligible to transfer to another school in the district.

The purpose of the requirement on notifying parents is “to ensure that parents have sufficient time, in advance of the school year, to make an informed decision about transferring their child to another school,” the Education Department says in the announcement published in the Federal Register.

The school choice notification requirement is an example of the Education Department’s exercise of too much authority, said Mr. Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is based in Denver.

“That conflicts directly with the statutory language that says [the notice] should be no later than the first day of the school year,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Rules Mandate Uniform Graduation Rates

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