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States Anxious for Federal Guidance On Yearly Progress

By Lynn Olson — November 27, 2002 10 min read
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Tension is mounting among state officials anxious for federal guidance on their obligations under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

With just two months to go until states must submit detailed plans to the federal government for how they will comply with the accountability provisions in the law, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to release final regulations. And five states that helped pilot a peer-review process late this past summer, an approach that federal officials will use to review state accountability plans, have yet to hear anything back in writing.

“We think it went really well,” Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the Indiana education department, said of the review. “But where has it gone? Nowhere.

“We have not heard from them officially since,” she said. “Without the final regulations, everyone is in a holding pattern.”

Given the worries about the pending deadline, and continued uncertainty over how to interpret the far-reaching law, the state schools chiefs are asking the federal Education Department to reconsider its Jan. 31 deadline for submitting state accountability plans. State leaders are also seeking flexibility to build on their existing accountability systems.

Last week, Melinda Malico, a spokeswoman for the federal department, said “there has been no discussion” of revising the January deadline.

The final regulations on the accountability provisions are “in the final stage of approval,” she said. “The department is certainly planning to get them out in the month of November.”

The state chiefs are especially worried about the “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act, the formula used to identify schools that need to improve.

In a statement approved Nov. 10 in New Orleans at the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual policy forum, the education commissioners and superintendents complained that, to date, they had received only preliminary or informal guidelines to clarify the provisions, despite earlier promises that both the final regulations and additional guidance would be “released months ago.”

“At the same time, there have been mixed messages from the Department of Education regarding implementation,” the chiefs wrote. “States report hearing different messages from various personnel in the department about what may or may not be permissible.”

‘Fast Track’ Questions

In a July 24 letter, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige indicated that the department might grant states some flexibility under the law, which reauthorized the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

He encouraged states to submit their accountability plans this fall, before the Jan. 31 deadline, “to ensure that states can move expeditiously to implement their new definitions of AYP.” (“Long-Awaited ESEA Rules Are Released,” Aug. 7, 2002.)

The Education Department invited states whose standards and assessments had won full approval under the 1994 version of the ESEA to participate in a test run of the peer-review process that will be used to critique state accountability plans come January.

Five states— Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and North Carolina—took part in the pilot.

Last week, officials in several of those states said they had stepped forward for the pilot effort, in part, because of conversations with department officials who had suggested they might be able to win “fast track” approval of their plans.

“That was kind of my understanding,” said William E. Windler, the assistant commissioner for special services in the Colorado education department.

In addition, the states hoped to explore just how much flexibility the federal department was willing to give, particularly in defining adequate yearly progress. But that proved impossible in the absence of final regulations.

“There was no plan for fast-track approval,” Ms. Malico said last week.

“We couldn’t have approved any of them because we didn’t have final regulations,” she said, “and because we didn’t have final regulations, we didn’t give them a written analysis of their accountability systems because it wouldn’t have been that meaningful.”

While state officials described the pilot process as positive and a good opportunity to present their case, they also depicted a rushed timetable.

Several states said they did not receive materials spelling out what documentation they needed to provide until a few days before their reviews.

“To give them their fair credit, it was a pilot effort,” Juliane M. Dow, the associate commissioner for accountability and targeted assistance in the Massachusetts education department, said of federal officials. “I know they learned a lot from doing it because they had many different experiences, and found that there are a lot of complicated issues.”

‘Alternative Approaches’

In their New Orleans statement, the chiefs said states should “expect an opportunity to suggest alternative approaches to requirements of the legislation in cases where they can demonstrate solutions that are already working.”

Louisiana officials, for example, presented empirical evidence to show that their existing accountability system is “meeting the intent of the law,” said John-Paul Beaudoin, the director of accountability for the state department of education.

Louisiana is closing achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds and is projected to have all students at the “proficient” level on state tests by 2013-14, as the federal law requires, he said.

State officials also argued that Louisiana’s existing system is more reliable than the federal statute in identifying which schools need to improve, and that the system should be retained with only minor modifications.

Similarly, the Kentucky state board of education voted Nov. 13 to change very little about its existing accountability system.

Instead, state officials will ask the federal Education Department to agree that, with a few alterations, the state’s current method of rating schools fulfills federal mandates.

“The overriding issue is that we’ve had this system in place now for about 12 years,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department. “Our schools are accustomed to it; they are working toward the goals that we have set for them.”

One issue is that many states, Kentucky among them, rate schools based on an index that combines student performance across a number of subjects, rather than setting separate targets in mathematics and reading as the federal law requires.

In addition, Kentucky and other states give schools credit for showing growth by moving students out of the lowest performance categories, even if they are not yet at the proficient level.

This week, Massachusetts was scheduled to release new school ratings that incorporate its proposed AYP definition. Under the rating system, schools will get full credit for every child who scores at the proficient or advanced level on state tests. But they also will get partial credit for moving students closer to that bar.

Massachusetts has plotted a trajectory for every school that shows how much it needs to improve each year to meet the 2013-14 goal for having all students at the “proficient” level.

As long as schools remain on that trajectory, the state will consider them to have made adequate progress, said Ms. Dow, even if they have not met the state’s initial AYP target.

“We’ve done everything that we’re required to do under the federal law, but we’ve done something more than that,” she said, “which is we’ve paid attention to the progress of schools.”

North Carolina has proposed largely to follow the letter of the federal law by giving schools a designation based on adequate yearly progress in addition to the ratings they receive under the state accountability system.

“Our plan is to do it the way they’re asking us to do it,” said Louis Fabrizio, the director of accountability for the North Carolina education department.

“The issue for us is going to be how we communicate to the public the fact that we will have schools that we’ll be designating ‘schools of excellence’ or ‘distinction’ that have not made AYP,” he added.

For schools to make adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind law, they must meet their performance targets in reading and math both for the student population as a whole and for several subgroups: students from racial and ethnic minorities, students from poor families, students with disabilities, and those with limited command of English.

States are concerned that having to meet so many separate improvement targets each year could result in many schools’ failure to make adequate progress. They are also concerned about the apparent prescriptions for the consequences schools that fall short will face.

Varied Responses

Many states would like the consequences for schools to vary based on how serious their problems are.

“We need to differentiate those schools with serious problems in both subjects in the aggregate and for several subgroups from those with a problem in one subgroup in one subject,” said Ms. Dow of Massachusetts. “They shouldn’t all go into restructuring. I think it just requires people to behave sensibly and purposefully, rather than mechanically.”

A strict interpretation of the federal law appears to require that states set a single initial AYP target statewide that would apply to all subgroups, and then raise that bar by regular increments.

But some states, such as North Carolina and Wyoming, would like to set different statewide starting points for each subgroup, based on its current performance. Groups that start further behind would then have to improve at a more rapid pace to make the 2013-14 deadline.

“We think that’s the one method which seems most fair to all of the groups involved,” said Mr. Fabrizio of North Carolina.

Colorado has proposed going one step further, setting separate starting points for every subgroup in every school and district based on those groups’ current performance.

The state would then draw a line from where those groups are to where they need to be in 2013- 14 and divide it by 12, to determine how much progress every subgroup in the school or district needs to make each year.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to make adequate progress for two years in a row are identified as needing improvement.

But some state officials argue that schools should only be identified as needing improvement if they miss the same target in both years.

For example, schools would be identified for improvement if they missed the target for Hispanic math performance in grade 4 for two consecutive years, but not if they missed the target for Hispanic math performance in grade 4 one year, and reading performance for black students in grade 6 the next.

Another sticking point: the minimum number of students in a subgroup before the scores are reliable enough to be used for accountability purposes, typically referred to as the “minimum N size.” While Pennsylvania has set a minimum N size of 75, other states have set the number at 30 or 40.

A paper prepared for the state chiefs’ council by a joint study group on adequate yearly progress, released this month, found that as the minimum N size increases, the percentage of schools failing to make adequate progress subsequently declines, because fewer schools end up having subgroups large enough to be counted for accountability purposes. But the paper warns that increasing the N size could essentially exclude many small schools from the accountability system.

A better approach, the paper suggests, is to use “confidence intervals,” a standard measurement technique that would allow states to consider schools to have made adequate progress even if they fell below their AYP targets, provided their scores were within the range of possible measurement error.

Similarly, even a very small school could be safely considered to have failed to make adequate progress if every one of its 15 pupils in 4th grade failed to score at the proficient level in reading.

‘Clock Is Ticking’

Rather than holding states to a highly detailed list of guidelines, Ms. Dow said she hopes the department approaches its reviews on a case-by-case basis.

“Providing each state the opportunity to present what it has come up with, and to describe and discuss how its system meets the requirements of the law, or is in at least substantial compliance with the law, rather than trying to create a one-size- fits-all, or a highly prescriptive, set of guidelines,"she added. “I think that would render the situation fairly unworkable.”

Some states, it appears, already seem to be following their own instincts.

“I don’t know of a single state that intends to submit a plan that fully complies with a strict interpretation of the law,” said Brian Gong, the associate director of the Center for Assessment, based in Portsmouth, N.H., who served on several of the pilot review panels.

Meanwhile, many state officials are losing patience.

“We don’t think it’s fair to schools and districts not to know in a very specific way the criteria upon which they are going to be graded,” said Mr. Windler of Colorado. “And the clock is already ticking.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Anxious for Federal Guidance On Yearly Progress

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