So I know I said I’d be doing these posts on a somewhat-daily basis. Thanks to the Senate Republicans’ new ESEA proposals, this is a little late.
As I wrote in the last Waiver Wire (read it!), requiring waiver winners to have college- and career-ready standards only takes you part of the way. No Child Left Behind was about more than standards – it required states to establish annual assessments based on the standards and play by the rules of a new accountability system: Adequate Yearly Progress, with specific prescriptions for schools and districts that failed to make AYP year after year. If Secretary Duncan’s waiver plan includes college- and career-ready standards, it only makes sense that assessments and school accountability should also be built around this idea.
States seem to have a pretty good handle on the assessment side. All but six are a member of PARCC and/or Smarter Balanced, the state consortia using over $330 million in federal grants to develop tests and resources aligned with the Common Core. But college and career readiness goes beyond standardized testing and should not be boiled down to just one static measure. And given one of the biggest criticisms against NCLB – “teaching to the test” – Secretary Duncan should use the waiver proposal to push states away from accountability based only on test scores to a system that incorporates multiple – and better – measures.
Let’s think about this in terms of high schools. To make AYP, a high school is judged on its students’ test scores (sometimes only from one grade), its graduation rate, and its attendance and test participation rates. That’s a very limited set of measures that does not accurately assess whether students are ready for college; a high school diploma is no guarantee of college success, given that only half of graduates are academically prepared for college. Why not expand the accountability measures for high school to include measures directly related to college and career readiness? This could include data like success in AP, dual enrollment, or other advanced classes, or student outcomes after high school including college enrollment, remediation, or persistence. As Education Sector has reported, using additional measures in high school accountability creates a richer picture of school achievement.
High schools could also be judged based on individual student growth. The proficiency targets that make up the majority of a school’s AYP determination – say, 80% of students must be proficient on reading and math tests – are a static measure. Schools are given zero credit for students who don’t meet the proficiency target, but made significant gains nonetheless (they are given credit under AYP safe harbor for significant growth in the percentage of students who are proficient). Many stakeholders, including Education Sector, have called for policymakers to include both status and growth in school accountability.
Why? Because having a more complete picture of school quality allows states to label schools more accurately than passing or failing to make AYP. A school may have low proficiency rates, but a high rate of academic growth. That school should be treated differently than a school with both low proficiency rates and low student growth. Some high proficiency schools may be found to have low growth rates, identifying a need for school improvements that was undetected by AYP’s pass/fail system. The new information provided by additional measures allows policymakers and educators to make more targeted interventions than under a one-size-fits-all system. These waivers can be one way for the federal government to use the states as testing laboratories for the various accountability reforms that have been proposed and see which ones work best to increase student achievement, improve outcomes, and close achievement gaps.
As the chart shows, many states are already moving in this direction. As of late July, 45 states and D.C. have signed on to CCSSO’s Roadmap for Next-Generation State Accountability Systems, which includes support for student growth models, multiple measures of achievement, and differentiated accountability systems with labels beyond pass/fail. Some states are already implementing these reforms. 14 states have their own accountability systems that report additional measures of school achievement beyond what is required by NCLB, and 10 states use these measures in their state accountability determinations (separate from AYP). 17 states are using student growth models, while 13 states are developing a model to measure student academic growth. And 5 states have adopted A-F accountability systems for schools that more finely distinguish between schools by awarding them letter grades as opposed to pass/fail.
Of course, the danger in these additional measures or growth models is that they intentionally add more complexity to an accountability system that is already little understood. But the problem with AYP is not just that’s it’s complicated, it’s that it’s a bad measure. The reforms listed in the chart are complex and nuanced, but Secretary Duncan should still require waiver winners to implement them… because they are better measures of performance.
This is particularly relevant now, given the Senate Republicans’ proposal. School improvement efforts in the lowest 5% of schools would follow specific guidelines, with the ability for states to get approval for other effective and innovative models. That means the other 95% of schools – which aren’t without their share of problems – may be engaged in school improvement, or they may not be. This decision, along with the exact reforms, would be entirely state-directed with no oversight.
If states are being given so much additional control over school improvement, there should be more than just transparent reporting on accountability; we need a tighter prescription around standards, assessments, and measures than in the Senate Republican plan. There should be greater guidance for states around how standards and assessments are certified as college- and career-aligned. And, the federal government should specify components in each state’s differentiated accountability system: student status and growth on tests, in addition to specific indicators and outcomes of college and career readiness, must be included. These measures could possibly be grouped (college outcomes, career outcomes, etc.) with some element of state choice within each group. In other words, states design their accountability determinations and consequences, but all states are looking at the same kinds of components within these designations.
The Republican proposal looks an awfully lot like the same fragmented system we have now, where there is no way to present a national picture of school achievement. If we have 50 different school improvement systems, let’s at least have 1 system for measuring whether they work. Duncan’s waiver plan gives the federal government a chance to test these systems and find the most effective version to incorporate into the next ESEA.