Yesterday, the Obama administration approved Pennsylvania’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) flexibility request, making the grand total of states with approved waivers 41 plus D.C.
In a recent Education Sector report, John Chubb and I take a look at state performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since NCLB was enacted. We use those results to judge which state waivers are most likely be successful and others that may not be as strong. We argue that states that have raised student achievement the most since 2003 (the first year of NAEP results after NCLB was authorized in 2001) will most likely continue to make progress, and therefore their waviers would reflect policies that are working.
Pennsylvania is one of those top-performing states. Their waiver offers some encouraging trends:
A focus on high standards: Pennsylvania signed on to the Common Core State Standards in 2010. The state has since used those standards as a foundation for an additional set of standards—the Pennsylvania Common Core Standards—customized specifically for the Commonwealth. These specialized standards include pre-K standards not specified in the original Common Core standards.
Increased accountability through “gap groups”: Most high-performing state waivers have opted to lower the minimum number of students required for reporting and accountability purposes, known as the N size. Pennsylvania has lowered its N size from 40 to 11 students. Lowering N sizes allows more students to be tracked, resulting in increased accountability. Additionally, students from historically under-performing backgrounds will be combined into one group called the “gap group,” which should help the state identify existing performance gaps in more schools.
Expanded online learning: Using its Race to the Top grant money, Pennsylvania is working to expand access to high-quality, online courses for all students. The online learning system, which focuses on STEM subjects, will be evaluated by the Online Course Choice initiative to ensure the quality of each course and its content. Expanding online learning is not something I have seen in other high-performing state waivers. Recent research suggests innovations in online education are having an impact on student achievement. With its Course Choice initiative, Pennsylvania is becoming a pioneer in the field of K-12 online learning. It will be interesting to see its effects.
While Education Sector’s waiver research rests on the assumption that high-performing state waivers will reflect successful state policies and initiatives, this has yet to be proven. It will be interesting to see if states follow through with promises made in waiver applications and if this flexibility raises performance for all students.
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