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Serious Questions to Ask About Your State’s NCLB Waiver Plan
Over the last year, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers from key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to 34 states and the District of Columbia. In exchange, states must institute certain reforms, including state accountability systems. But until now, too little attention has been paid to the quality of states’ plans. In its recent report, "A Step Forward or A Step Back? State Accountability in the Waiver Era," The Education Trust compares the accountability plans in the NCLB waivers with critical elements of a good accountability system, one that ensures success for all students. The report finds that while some states are implementing strategies to raise student achievement in promising ways, too many seem to be taking a step back.
The report asks several critical questions: whether states have set ambitious, achievable expectations for raising achievement and closing gaps; if student performance and graduation-rate goals apply to students overall as well as for groups of students; and whether these goals matter in school ratings. New Mexico’s accountability plan, for example, would allow a school to receive an “A” rating, even if it consistently misses annual goals for groups of students, like its American-Indian students or its English learners. Simply having goals isn’t enough. They have to matter.
The report also examines the use of “supergroup” performance in accountability systems. In theory, using supergroups, which combine students from different subgroups instead of looking at each group separately, holds more schools accountable for the performance of small groups of students. Some states, such as Nevada, are indeed using supergroups in this way. Other states, however, are taking an approach that could recreate the problem subgroup accountability sought to fix in the first place: averages masking very different levels of performance among different groups.
Good accountability systems, however, must go beyond simply evaluating performance. Thus, the report asks whether state plans prompt meaningful action when schools repeatedly fall short of expectations, or exceed them. Are struggling schools ensured access to the strongest teachers and leaders? Are there clear roles and responsibilities for states and districts? Some states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have created clear district roles and responsibilities for working with underperforming schools. But many other states leave district responsibility vaguely defined. Moreover, some states don’t spell out a clear course of action for schools that do not improve after several years of receiving additional resources and support.
These are the questions that educators, advocates, and policymakers must ask of their state’s plan. As states continue to implement their accountability systems, it’s critical to pay close attention to whether these systems are pushing districts and schools to raise achievement and close gaps, to learn from systems that appear to be doing so, and to push for change if the results show otherwise.