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An “Inside-Baseball” Look At the Potential Negative Outcomes of the Alexander-Murray Bill to Rewrite NCLB

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April 13, 2015 02:23 pm


The bipartisan effort underway in the Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) is music to the ears of everyone who has been calling for the end to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But a number of civil rights and education reform organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, may not be able to support this bill. It is important to understand why.

The major issue at hand is the loss of support for traditionally underserved students and low-performing schools in the proposal presented by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA). This blog will explain these losses in clear, factual terms with concrete examples of the potential negative outcomes of this bill. I will focus on four items:

  • Faulty accountability indexes
  • Insufficient goals for graduation rates
  • Inadequate support for subgroups
  • Inadequate support for low-performing high schools

Faulty Accountability Indexes

The Alexander/Murray bill proposes a very different system of accountability than NCLB. Rather than the singular focus on test scores and graduation rates, this bill requires a system with multiple measures. For elementary and middle schools, the accountability system will incorporate test scores, English language proficiency, a statewide academic indicator selected by the state, and an additional indicator selected by the state. For high schools, the accountability system will incorporate test scores, graduation rates, English language proficiency, and an additional indicator selected by the state. This additional indicator may be an indicator of readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce, student engagement, teacher engagement, school climate, or any other state-determined measure.

To be clear, I and the Alliance for Excellent Education fully support the move toward multiple measure accountability systems. My colleagues Bob Rothman and Jessica Cardichon wrote a great report describing how data dashboards, including multiple measures, can be effective mechanisms for accountability and improvement, particularly for identifying the root-cause of the poor performance.

The problem with the Alexander/Murray approach is that it allows a multiple measure system that could mask student performance and result in either too few schools being identified for improvement, or the wrong schools being identified for improvement. This is because states are likely to have a series of indicators in their system, then aggregate these indicators into a single index score of some sort, and identify schools for improvement based on this score.

Within indexes, the Alliance has found that the indicators that matter the most do not receive the weight they deserve. Take graduation rates as an example. The goal of K-12 education is for students to graduate from high school, so it is logical for graduation rates to carry a pretty substantial weight in the accountability system.

But guess what? When the U.S. Department of Education (ED) began issuing waivers from NCLB, 12 states used indexes that allocated less than 25 percent of the index to graduation rates (see pages 13 and 36 of this Alliance report for additional information).

Could the same thing happen under the Alexander/Murray bill? You can count on it. States are under tremendous pressure to limit the number of schools that receive a label under the accountability system. An index paves the way to limited identification and therefore limited funding and support.

The Alexander/Murray bill seemingly tries to ensure that important indicators really count in the index by saying that test scores, graduation rates, and the indicator of readiness for postsecondary education or the workforce have to carry “substantial” weight (for example, see page 52, line 7-12 of the bill). But then the bill prohibits ED from establishing “any criterion that specifies, defines or prescribes…the terms meaningfully or substantially” (see pages 54-56 of the bill for a long list of things ED is prohibited from doing). This means that the term “substantial” could end up being of very little consequence.

This is not just a theoretical problem:

  • Ed Trust produced a terrific report documenting how student subgroups are getting overlooked and underserved in state accountability systems. For example, in Florida, only 58 percent of African American students are proficient in reading in A schools. Since when does 58 percent equal an A? Isn’t that an F?
  • The Alliance has found that there are 50 high schools in Florida that received an A, but failed to graduate one-third of at least one of their subgroups.
  • Now on to Nevada. Of the 49 states with data for 2012-2013, Nevada ranks 47 on its graduation rate (70.7 percent). Yet the state’s accountability is explicitly designed so that 75 percent of its schools receive at least three stars within its five-star rating system (see page 51 of Nevada’s approved waiver).  What does this mean in practice? There are 29 schools in the state with less than 60 percent of their students proficient in math but receive a 4-star rating. It’s like living in a world of predominantly fast food restaurants, and giving most of them 3, 4, or 5 stars.

Insufficient goals for graduation rates

In 2008, ED issued regulations that required states to set high school graduation rate goals that are “continuous and substantial.”

This is important because without this requirement, 28 states allowed any progress whatsoever to consider their schools as meeting their graduation requirement under the state plan. In three states, a school could increase its graduation rate by 0.1 percent and still meet the requirement. This isn’t problematic if a high school has a 90 percent graduation rate, but it is if it has a 60 percent graduation rate. In addition, states set overall graduation rate goals as low as 50 percent.

These problems didn’t take place thirty years ago; this was documented by the Government Accountability Office as policy within states as of July 2005 (see page 19-22 of this report).  After ED issued the graduation rate regulation, state graduation rate goals were increased substantially.

But under the Alexander/Murray bill, although states have to set goals, ED is prohibited from establishing “any criterion that specifies, defines or prescribes…the specific goals that States establish” (again, see pages 54-56 of the bill for a long list of things ED is prohibited from doing).

Inadequate support for subgroups

The purpose of having an accountability system (part one of this blog) that includes goals (part two of this blog) is to make sure that the students and schools who need help receive support to improve. Under current law, and under the 2014 waiver guidance issued by ED, if a student subgroup consistently misses an achievement or graduation rate goal, an intervention must be implemented (see page 8, section 2.F., of ED’s waiver guidance).

Under the Alexander/Murray bill, there is no such requirement. Low-performing schools have to be identified, but as we discussed earlier, how this happens is largely up to states. Which begs the question…how likely is it that traditionally underserved students will receive support when they need it?

In all likelihood, there will be states where this happens. But we also know that, without a federal requirement, there will be many states where it won’t. The Alliance just issued a report documenting 14 states and territories with waivers that either do not include the graduation rates of student subgroups in their accountability system, or include them for such a small portion of the system that their low performance is unlikely to trigger a response.  The Alexander/Murray bill would allow states to continue this practice.

Inadequate support for low-performing high schools

High schools have long been overlooked by federal education policy, and this tradition threatens to be continued under the Alexander/Murray bill.

ED’s waiver policy requires that high schools with low graduation rates be identified as “priority” or “focus” schools. This is critical because there are 1,235 high schools across the nation that fail to graduate one-third (or more) of their students. These high schools predominantly, and disproportionately, enroll traditionally underserved students.

Unfortunately, the Alexander/Murray bill removes the requirement that these schools be identified for comprehensive reform. Even worse, they may not even be eligible for school improvement funding under the bill. This is because school improvement funding is available only to schools that are formally identified for improvement. And as we have discussed previously, states are under pressure to identify as few schools as possible, and there are no real requirements regarding what schools get identified.

This is a major catch-22. States are under political pressure to limit the number of schools that get identified for improvement. But under the Alexander/Murray bill, a school has to get identified in order to receive funding for improvement.

Where does this leave us?

At a meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers a few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reflected upon the last several years and heralded the progress on the nation’s graduation rate – finally reaching 81 percent – as one of the biggest accomplishments in education over the last decade. Unless the bill is amended, that progress could quickly erode. As Dr. Robert Balfanz and John Bridgeland discussed in a terrific op-ed a few weeks ago, evidence demonstrates that the combination of federal accountability and local innovation has led to gains in graduation rates across subgroups over the past decade. The lack of support for struggling students and schools in the Alexander/Murray bill puts these gains at risk.

On Tuesday, the Senate HELP Committee will consider a bill to rewrite NCLB. The temptation to vote for this bill will be high because everyone wants to vote against NCLB. However, it is critical that the bill be improved before it emerges from the committee and goes to the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Alliance and the League of United Latin American Citizens, National Indian Education Association, National Urban League, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center have sent a letter to Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray asking for specific improvements to the legislation.

Specifically, we are asking for a requirement that traditionally underserved students receive support when they miss state-set annual goals for two or more years. We are also asking for high schools that fail to graduate one-third (or more) of their students be identified for improvement. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is offering an amendment to ensure that these low-graduation rate high schools receive support. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) is offering an amendment to ensure support for schools with struggling subgroups. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) is offering an amendment that would provide grants to partnerships among school districts, employers, and colleges to help transform these low-performing high schools into Next Generation high schools. Without these changes, the Committee should not pass the bill.

ESEA has a real chance of being passed this year and could set the course for the next ten years. U.S. Senators should casts their votes for a good bill, a civil rights bill, and not just as a vote against NCLB.  Let’s push for strong amendments during the markup, and give our kids a bill worth fighting for.

Phillip Lovell is Vice President for Policy and Advocacy for Comprehensive School Reform at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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