North Dakota withdrew its request for an ESEA waiver on Monday after months of working with the federal Department of Education on its plan.* According to North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, the disagreement boiled down to how the state should set performance targets for its schools, commonly called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs). North Dakota wanted to set lower targets than the feds were willing to accept. Let’s take a look to see which one was right.
Under the waiver criteria, the Department offered states three choices in setting AMOs. They could (a) use a new method that aimed to reduce the achievement gap in equal increments over the next six years; (b) keep the 100 percent proficiency target of NCLB but move it back to 2020 instead of the law’s 2014; or (c) use another method that resulted in “ambitious but achievable” goals for all schools and subgroups. North Dakota chose Option C but used a variation of Option A. Instead of cutting the achievement gap in half within six years, North Dakota only wanted to cut it in a quarter in the same amount of time. As an example, here’s what the two methods would look like for North Dakota’s “All students” subgroup in reading:
To put these numbers in context and see how “ambitious but achievable” these options were, I looked back at North Dakota’s 4th grade math and reading results from 2004-5 and saw how much progress each subgroup had made six years later, by 2010-11. Not a single group made enough progress to cut the achievement gap in half, and only one group—black students in 4th grade math—met even the cut-the-gap-in-quarter goal. On the opposite end, a total of five subgroups actually went backwards. In math, a lower percentage of Asian and Pacific Islanders and Hispanic students were proficient in 2010-11 than in 2004-5. In reading, proficiency rates declined for Asian and Pacific Islanders, black, and Hispanic students.
What does this all mean? For starters, it suggests that the Department was insisting that North Dakota set performance targets that were well beyond what the state’s students had historically accomplished. Even North Dakota’s own targets may have been too ambitious. On the other hand, as they say in the stock market, past performance doesn’t predict future results. In North Dakota, only about one-third of Limited English Proficient students currently meet standards. Under North Dakota’s cut-the-gap-in-quarter proposal, LEP students would only need to get to 50 percent proficiency in 2018. In other words, North Dakota was willing to accept that half of LEP students would fail, without any consequences for their schools. The Department of Education wouldn’t accept those low standards.
I don’t have any answers on who is right in North Dakota’s case. It’s important to keep the numbers in mind when we’re weighing these decisions but, ultimately, these are political judgments about balancing what’s reasonable versus what’s acceptable.
*Disclosure: I worked on the ESEA flexibility initiative but I left the Department before North Dakota submitted its request.
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