Alternative accountability

Eleven states have applied for No Child Left Behind waivers. Mike Petrilli looks at how they propose to deal with accountability.

Here’s what the future holds if the Department of Education gives its assent:

1. A deadline for getting all kids to “proficiency” will go the way of the dinosaur. None of the states opted to set a deadline for universal proficiency. A few agreed to reduce the number of not-yet-proficient students by 50 percent over the next six years, but most developed their own twist on “annual measurable objectives.”

2. A focus on growth will eclipse the need for “subgroup accountability.” Models such as the one proposed by Colorado would set “annual measurable objectives” at the kid-level. Schools would be expected to help all students make enough progress to get them to a college-and-career ready standard by high school. (For high achieving students who are already approaching this standard, schools would be held accountable for making sure they grow at least a year’s worth of learning every year.) This is exactly the right concept–have a real-live standard (college readiness) and ask schools to aim at getting all kids to it by graduation. That will require making the most rapid progress for the students who are furthest behind. Since those kids are more likely to be poor and from minority groups, it makes subgroup accountability per se unnecessary. (Though the Administration’s guidelines still require it.)

3. Subjects beyond reading and math will count again. Seven of the states are taking the opportunity to expand the subjects included in their accountability systems. Colorado will look at writing, science, and ACT results; Florida will add writing and science; Georgia will include science and social studies for grades 3-8 and a whole suite of exit exams for high school; Kentucky and Oklahoma add science, social studies, and writing; and Massachusetts and Tennessee will both add science to the mix. This should be helpful in counteracting the narrowing of the curriculum.

These are “sensible alternatives” that should be endorsed by the Education Department, Petrilli writes.



Proficient in Texas, but not in Missouri

Most states don’t match federal proficiency standards for elementary math and reading, a new federal report concludes.

Eight states have raised standards in recent years.  South Carolina has lowered its standards, though the new superintendent pledges to raise the bar.

The National Center for Education Statistics compares state requirements to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

In fourth-grade reading, for example, 35 states set passing bars that are below the “basic” level on the national NAEP exam. “Basic” means students have a satisfactory understanding of material, as opposed to “proficient,” which means they have a solid grasp of it. Massachusetts is the only state to set its bar at “proficient”—and that was only in fourth- and eighth-grade math.

The report shows huge disparities among the standards states set when their tests are converted to the NAEP’s 500-point scale. In eighth-grade reading, for example, there is a 60-point difference between Texas, which has the lowest passing bar, and Missouri, which has the highest, according to the data. In eighth-grade math, there is a 71-point spread between the low, Tennessee, and the high, Massachusetts.

A Tennessee eighth grader could be considered proficient without being able to read a graph, while a Massachusetts student meeting the proficiency benchmark “would likely be able to solve a math problem using algebra and geometry.”


It’s the low performance, stupid

No Child Left Behind doesn’t require all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, writes Eduwonk in discussing Duncan’s NCLB waivers. Eduwonk is pro waiver, but “details seem to be getting short shrift lately in favor of the same talking points.”

Well, it’s not really 100 percent, more like 92 percent or so, and it’s not 2014 in practice but really several years later (pdf). And in practice for a school to make “adequate yearly progress” often only 6 or 7 in 10 of its students need to be passing a test at the proficient level right now.  And, to be proficient doesn’t mean a perfect score on a test, often more like getting half the questions on a test right (pdf).

“Proficiency” isn’t what it used to be.

Duncan waives NCLB

With Congress stalled on revising No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will do it himself. Duncan will waive NCLB requirements, such as achieving 100 percent proficiency by 2014, if states adopt Duncan-approved school reforms. It’s a huge expansion of executive power, notes the New York Times.

Under the current law, every school is given the equivalent of a pass-fail report card each year, an evaluation that administration officials say fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve, and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.

Expect suburban schools to get a pass, even if minority or low-income subgroups do poorly.

To receive a waiver, states must adopt “college- and career-ready” standards (just Common Core Standards?), work to improve teacher effectiveness, develop evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures, turn around the lowest-performing schools and adopt  accountability systems to replace No Child’s pass-fail system.

“It sounds like they’re trying to do a backdoor Round 3 of Race to the Top, and that’s astonishing,” said Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. He called Mr. Duncan’s plan “a dramatically broad reading of executive authority.”

If Republicans take the White House in the next election, the administration’s power play will set a dangerous precedent, adds Hess.

NCLB identifies too many schools as needing intervention, writes Russ Whitehurst at Brookings. Duncan should waive impossible goals — but not abuse the waiver authority to make federal law.

It is one thing for an administration to grant waivers to states to respond to unrealistic conditions on the ground or to allow experimentation and innovation. Similar waiver authority has been used to advance welfare and Medicaid reform going back to the Reagan administration, and to allow a few districts and states to experiment at the margins of NCLB in the Bush administration. It is quite another thing to grant state waivers conditional on compliance with a particular reform agenda that is dramatically different from existing law.

Duncan will create a backlash against Common Core Standards, if he forces all states to adopt them, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

Politics K-12 has a round-up of reactions. States are very eager to get out from under NCLB’s expectations, but not so eager to sign up for the administration’s version of education reform.

Michigan teachers report pressure to cheat

Nearly 30% of Michigan teachers report pressure to cheat on standardized exams, according to a survey by the Detroit Free Press. In addition, 34% of public school educators said administrators, parents or others pressure teachers to change grades.

At schools that don’t meet federal standards, the tension is higher: About 50% say pressure to change grades is an issue, and 46% say pressure to cheat on the tests is a problem.

Some cave in — about 8% say they changed grades within the last school year, and at least 8% admit to some form of cheating to improve a student’s standardized test score.

Another 17% report cheating by a colleague.

However, the most common cheating method — writing down vocabulary words to teach to next year’s classes — doesn’t seem like cheating to me. Does Michigan give exactly the same tests from year to year? That would be asking for trouble.

Two out of three teachers surveyed oppose using standardized tests to gauge student achievement and 95% oppose using standardized tests to make decisions about teacher salaries.

Michigan will base 25% of a teacher’s evaluation on students’ progress by 2013-14; that will rise to 50% in 2015-16.

In addition, the state education department plans to raise standards on the state exam, making it harder to score as proficient. “ACT scores show only 17% of Michigan students leave high school prepared for college,” notes the Free Press.


More states plan to defy NCLB

Idaho, Montana and South Dakota plan to ignore No Child Left Behind’s proficiency targets, unless Congress acts to modify the law, reports Ed Week.  The three states have told Education Secretary Arne Duncan they’ll “stop the clock as the 2014 deadline approaches for bringing all students to proficiency in math and language arts” to limit the number of schools that face penalties for failure to make progress.

Kentucky has asked permission to use its own accountability system.

The Education Department has offered waivers only to states that agree to federally approved reforms. Roll-your-own waiver is not an option, said Justin Hamilton, the department spokesperson, on Tuesday.


If not 100% proficiency, then what?

Fifteen years ago, more or less, I was asked to speak to a graduate class for teachers seeking an administrative credential. A teacher talked about all the kids growing up in poverty and in dysfunctional families and said San Jose Unified’s slogan, “All children can learn,” was unrealistic. The teacher asked me what percentage of students the public expected the schools to educate.

I said, “Ninety percent?” The teachers laughed. Derisively. I wish I’d made them come up with a number.

Education reformers are accusing Diane Ravitch of defeatism when it comes to educating poor children, notes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.  But it’s time to clarify what reformers think they can achieve, he writes. If we can’t bring 100 percent of students to proficiency — and we can’t –  what can education reform achieve?

This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in U.S. kindergartens, he writes. Most are the children of poorly educated single mothers. Should school accountability systems expect all these children to be prepared to attend four-year colleges? Is it enough for them to do no worse than their mothers?

I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge–privately at least–that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why we call them odds.) You recognize that for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.

But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools–even mediocre ones–that have helped some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice for decades to come.

A stretch goal, writes Petrilli, would be to move the high school graduation rate in poor districts from 50 percent to 60 percent, perhaps to shift the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school from 17 percent up to 25 percent, or math proficiency from 8 percent to 15 percent.

That would turn 400,000 of our million poor kids into drop-outs; only 90,000 would be proficient in math. But it’s an improvement.

There could be less ambitious goals, Petrilli writes:

Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

. . . If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.

President Obama wants all young Americans to have at least a year of postsecondary education. But only 71.7 percent complete high school: The rate drops to 57 percent for blacks, 58 percent for Latinos.

Update: Dropout Nation prefers irrational exuberance to low expectations.

Can we rewrite NCLB by August?

President Obama wants to rewrite No Child Left Behind before the start of the next school year. The “blueprint” for change includes easing the proficiency targets that his Education Department predicts 82 percent of schools will miss. On National Journal, Education Experts discuss whether a new education law can be passed by August and how it should be changed.

It’s no surprise that most schools won’t reach their goals, writes Steve Peha. Most educators aren’t really trying, knowing that nothing much is likely to happen if they fail.

One thing the anti-NCLB crowd doesn’t often talk about is that much of NCLB never got implemented because so many of the people it affected worked so hard to weasel out of it.

To make matters worse, states lowered their cut scores and made their tests easier to pass, schools and districts cheated on their testing, and much of the money that went to schools in trouble was wasted by people who seemed to prefer their troubles to positive change.

In his work as a consultant, Peha talked to many educators who hoped NCLB  would go away eventually. “And now it is about to.”

The very people who did the least to implement the law have won—to a small extent at least. Because all they had to do to “prove” NCLB a failure was not implement good practice.

“Most of the ideas floated for potential implementation seem weaker and less coherent than what we have now,” Peha writes. “I think the reason we haven’t reauthorized NCLB is that, for all its unpopularity, no one has come up with anything better.”

Despite the president’s call for action, House Education Chair John Kline won’t “rush” reauthorization, notes Rick Hess on Straight Up. “I’m not going to rush this and do it wrong,” Kline told The Hill on Tuesday.

NEA-friendly Democrats and small-government Republicans could block action in the Senate, predicts Hess, while “House Republicans who promised to dramatically shrink the federal footprint” aren’t “eager to pass an education bill that retains any federal role when it comes to school improvement or teacher effectiveness.”

Gist drops three-tier diploma plan

Rhode Island should stick with a single diploma, says Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, who’d proposed creating standard, “regents” and honors diplomas. Instead, she said districts should be able to add “endorsements” to the diploma to indicate higher levels of proficiency and honors.

In addition, Gist proposes delaying more rigorous high school graduation requirements for two years, till 2014, to give schools and students more time to prepare.

The tougher standards aren’t all that tough: Juniors who score at the lowest level on state math and English tests –”substantially below proficient” — will have to retake the tests senior year and show improvement. They will not have to show proficiency.

Currently, students who score poorly on the 11th-grade state exam can show samples of their work or use other test scores to qualify for graduation.  Up to half the class has been using that option:  45 percent of Rhode Island’s 11th-graders score “substantially below proficient” in math; 9 percent score at the lowest level in English.

What parts of NCLB should be left behind?

No Child Left Behind should be rewritten in pieces, not in a comprehensive overhaul, says Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who will chair the House Education and Labor Committee in January.  National Journal asks:

Which “pieces” of the No Child Left Behind puzzle can be worked out on their own? What changes can be widely agreed upon? Benchmark reform? Special education funding? Teacher assessments? School accountability? Does it make sense to rework the law in small bites? If lawmakers manage to take the pressure off schools by adjusting the 2014 proficiency benchmarks, does that destroy the momentum for other changes that are harder to implement?

Scrap NCLB and start over, writes Diane Ravitch.

We’ll never beat the Asian tigers on PISA if we give up on getting all our students over NCLB’s grade-level achievement bar, writes Sandy Kress.

Expect a NCLB patch to avoid labeling schools as failures, predicts Rick Hess.