States Vie to Be Part of NCLB ‘Growth’ Pilot

By Lynn Olson — January 31, 2006 7 min read
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Guidance available at www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/stateletters/index.html#growthmodels

Many other states, moreover, appear eager—judging from their participation in recent conference calls and meetings on the topic—at least to explore the possibility of applying for the “growth models” pilot. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the program in November, following pressure from states and education groups. (“U.S. to Pilot New Gauge of ‘Growth’,” Nov. 30, 2005.)

Officials in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Utah all told Education Week that they were planning to apply for the pilot initiative. The Department of Education released further guidance on the program, which has a Feb. 17 deadline for applications, on Jan. 27. As many as 10 states could take part after going through a peer-review process.

Representatives from 35 states were scheduled to attend a San Diego meeting last week, sponsored by the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, on the use of growth models. And the Education Department estimated that nearly all the states participated in one of three question-and-answer teleconferences it sponsored about the program.

What’s more, as many as eight mostly rural states—Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming—also may use the pilot project to petition for the flexibility to form a rural accountability system focused on the individual student.

“We’re the kind of states that could actually create an accountability system that dealt with every child and not with groups of children,” said Douglas D. Christensen, the education commissioner in Nebraska, which hosted a meeting of those states in Omaha on Jan. 17.

Conditions Must Be Right

To be eligible for the U.S. Department of Education’s pilot program on “growth models” for gauging students’ progress, a state proposal must meet seven criteria:

1. Ensure that all students are proficient by 2013-14, and set annual goals to ensure that achievement gaps are closing for all groups of students.

2. Establish student-level growth targets that are not based on student demographics or school characteristics.

3. Hold schools accountable for student achievement in reading/language arts and mathematics.

4. Ensure that all students in the tested grades are included in the testing and accountability system; hold schools and districts accountable for the performance of student subgroups; and include all schools and districts.

5. Have reading and math tests in each of grades 3-8 and high school since the 2004-05 school year. The testing system must receive federal approval for this school year and produce comparable results from grade to grade and year to year.

6. Track student progress as part of the state data system.

7. Include student participation rates on state tests and student achievement on an additional academic indicator as part of the accountability system.

Guidance available at www.ed.gov/policy/ elsec/guid/stateletters/index.html# growthmodels

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

To be deemed to have made adequate yearly progress, a critical gauge of performance under the federal law, schools and districts must meet targets for the percent of students who score at the proficient level or above on state reading and math tests in any given year. In contrast, growth models track the progress of youngsters over time, and could give schools credit for moving students toward proficiency.

Proponents argue that such models are a fairer and more accurate way to judge schools than by comparing the performance of different cohorts of students. They also could better target resources to schools that are both low-performing and fail to move students significantly from where they started.

But others worry that the models are not yet ready for use in high-stakes accountability systems, and that they could take pressure off schools to bring all students to the proficient level.

“I think the department needs to be really careful about which states get the nod and get approved to do this,” said Dianne Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that has favored allowing no more than five states in a growth-model pilot program.

“It’s an experiment,” Ms. Piché said. “It’s not a program that’s authorized by the law.”

“We want to see if growth models can be done, and if they can be done effectively,” she added, “but we don’t want a whole other system to be used that will replace a system that is now reasonably effective at identifying where the trouble spots are.”

‘Get in the Line’

Some state officials said they intend to write letters or submit proposals to the federal department expressing their interest in the project, even though they do not now meet the criteria specified by Secretary Spellings in a letter dated Nov. 21.

The guidance released last week noted that department staff members will conduct an initial review of the proposals to determine basic eligibility. Only states that meet the minimum eligibility requirements will advance to the peer-review stage. The actual peer review will occur in April, with recommendations due to the secretary by May.

“We do intend to submit a letter letting the secretary know that we have interest in moving into this,” said Betty J. Sternberg, the commissioner of education in Connecticut, which is pursuing a court challenge over the law. “We don’t expect, given their requirements, to be in the first round. We just want to get in the line, if there’s a second round.”

Other states already include a growth measure in their accountability systems and have advocated such leeway under federal law. “It’s clear that those in Washington have realized that some flexibility is needed to make NCLB work most effectively,” said Hanna Skandera, the deputy commissioner of accountability research and measurement for the Florida Department of Education.

Her state already gives schools credit for the academic growth of their lowest-performing students under its own plan, but has been prevented from doing so for purposes of complying with the No Child Left Behind law.

Tennessee, which has tracked the progress of individual students for 12 years as part of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, also plans to apply.

“We’ve seen the benefits to using a value-added approach,” said Connie J. Smith, the executive director of the state’s office of innovation, improvement, and accountability. “If you only have a single approach to accountability, you’re limiting yourself.”

In Pennsylvania, about 100 districts have participated in the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System pilot over the past three years. The state department of education plans to request permission for those districts to take part in the federal pilot, while the rest of the districts move toward implementing such a plan in the future.

Ohio must include a value-added component in its accountability system starting in 2007-08, under state law. But officials there hope to start using such a measure under the federal law even sooner.

“We think there may be schools out there where the proficiency rates are relatively low, but where students make very strong progress while they’re enrolled—sufficient progress that they’re on the way to being proficient by the end of that school’s grade configuration or by a certain point in the future,” said Mitchell D. Chester, an assistant superintendent for the state education department.

Adding a growth measure to the AYP equation also would allow the state to direct resources to schools that most need help: those with low proficiency rates making little headway, Mr. Chester argued.

The key difference between Ohio’s approach and traditional growth models, he added, is that schools would have to show that students were on track to reach proficiency by a specific time.

No Miracles

Under the pilot project, states still must bring all students to proficiency on state tests by 2013-14, the deadline specified in the federal law. Given that goal, it’s unclear whether using a growth measure would help substantially more schools meet their AYP targets.

“It helps a few schools,” said Les Morse, the director of assessment and accountability for the Alaska Department of Education, which also plans to submit a proposal. “It probably doesn’t help as many as educators in the field think it would help.”

The bigger issue, he said, is a concept of fairness: “I think it makes for a more valid system than just looking at status.”

“It makes sense; it’s logical,” said Valerie A. Woodruff, Delaware’s education secretary. Delaware probably will apply for the pilot, but is still weighing its options, she said last week.

Even in those states that already use a growth measure as part of their accountability systems, meshing that with the NCLB requirements could be tricky. Since 1996-97, for example, North Carolina has looked at the growth of all students for accountability purposes.

“It’s pretty clear that when the U.S. Department of Education is talking about growth models, they’re really talking about growth models applied only to the students who are not yet proficient,” said Lou Fabrizio, the director of accountability for the state education department. So North Carolina presumably would have to use a different growth measure for compliance with the federal law.

Despite the interest in the federal pilot offer, many observers question whether most states actually have the infrastructure in place to track student growth over time. Some of the states planning to submit proposals “are not qualified on the face of the secretary’s letter,” said Brian Gong, the president of the Dover, N.H.-based Center for Assessment, which works with states to improve their systems of testing and accountability.

“Although they say they’re interested, and they say they’re going to apply,” he said, “I’m pretty sure that they aren’t going to get approved.”

“In conversations that we’ve had with folks from Washington, they’ve encouraged us to submit something, even though there are points that we can’t meet,” said Mary S. Heath, New Hampshire’s deputy commissioner of education. “I feel like there’s a sense of openness and inquiry on their part to look at what people are proposing.”

Those proposals could influence policymakers’ thinking about how to amend the 4-year-old federal law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—when it’s reauthorized. The law is up for renewal next year.

The federal Education Department has encouraged states that are not eligible for the pilot project to consider using an index that gives schools credit for the improved performance of students below the proficient level. States have until April 1 to request such changes in how they calculate adequate progress.


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