With President Obama’s re-election last night, we can be even more confident that the Administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers are likely to continue, at least until they expire in 2014*. The waivers rely on educational accountability systems that place much more weight on normative comparisons than performance against an absolute standard. That means concerns about setting the “right” annual measurable objectives (AMOs) or worrying about whether graduation rates will trigger automatic consequences are more or less irrelevant.
I don’t mean to be flip about this, but it’s an important distinction and a different way of seeing the world. NCLB relied on what we would call criterion-referenced accountability. Each school was judged on whether it meets a pre-defined bar. Failing to meet AMOs triggered a series of increasingly serious consequences prescribed under federal law, and graduation rates were just about to have similar automatic consequences. Because these were measures against an objective standard, all schools could have failed.
That system is no longer. From the very beginning, the Obama Administration has embraced a worldview where states essentially rank their schools and then structure consequences accordingly. This is a normative model, where schools are compared on a relative basis to each other. This system is in Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grants, the Administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing NCLB, and, most notably, the waiver initiative. This system asks states to identify their lowest-performing schools (the bottom five percent, called priority schools) and support them as they undergo dramatic whole-school reforms. Another ten percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps (called focus schools) must commit to more targeted interventions.
The waivers also have a section on other schools not in these categories, which asks states to design their own systems to “provide incentives and supports to ensure continuous improvement.” Note that this is far softer, and far less prescriptive, than NCLB. State plans under this section typically pay attention to schools that fail to close subgroup achievement gaps over time, but they are much less formulaic and punitive.
Why did the Administration change this? Well, for starters, the NCLB paradigm was no longer tenable. If half of all schools are in need of improvement, as the latest data suggest, it’s hard to take that label seriously. NCLB also had one-size-fits-all consequences, meaning that a school with one subgroup failing to meet its performance targets was treated the same as a school with overall low performance. The Administration also made a calculation that states and districts simply don’t have the capacity to improve half of their schools; thus, states and districts would be better off if they could focus on the important cases. Most importantly, the normative model is one of continuous improvement. It says that New Mexico and New York both have good schools, and they both have schools needing improvement.
Once you recognize we’re in a normative world now, it changes how you see things. For example, if achievement targets are just targets, for accountability purposes, it almost doesn’t matter where they’re set. Without strings attached to meeting them, they really are just symbolic goals. The same is true for graduation rates. Once they are no longer paired with automatic triggers for low performance, the issues become about incentives and ensuring that states capture a proportionate number of high schools in their priority and focus school lists.
At the federal level, we’ve used criterion-referenced accountability for a decade now, but that is beginning to change and, in 35 states, it’s mostly normative now. There are strengths and weaknesses of each, but switching to a norm-referenced system should change the way we look at school performance.
*Disclosure: Until recently, I worked on this issue for the Department of Education.
Photo Credit: Jewel Samad, Getty Images