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A STEP FORWARD OR A STEP BACK?: New Education Trust Report Finds “A Lot of Backsliding” in States’ Approved NCLB Waiver Plans

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“When it became clear that Congress couldn’t reach agreement on a long-overdue reauthorization of the law, we understood the consequences of not granting some kind of flexibility,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

A new report from the Education Trust finds that, by granting states waivers from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, the U.S. Department of Education “opened the door for some innovation” but also allowed for “a lot of backsliding” on the nation’s commitment to close gaps and raise achievement for all students. The report, A Step Forward or a Step Back?: State Accountability in the Waiver Era, finds that schools in “far too many” states can get good ratings even with low performance for some student groups and that approaches to improving poorly performing schools are “too timid.”

“When it became clear that Congress couldn’t reach agreement on a long-overdue reauthorization of the law, we understood the consequences of not granting some kind of flexibility,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “But supporting the concept of a waiver process is very different from supporting how that process moved forward or the final agreements that resulted. In the end, while some states showed real courage in the effort to move the needle on school improvement, far too many were allowed to create systems that weaken the civil rights commitments of federal law.”

The report includes four key findings and offers both good and bad ideas that were included in state waiver plans and approved by the U.S. Department of Education:

  • While most states set ambitious goals for raising student achievement and closing gaps between groups—often expecting much higher annual improvement than they attained under NCLB—most states did not make students’ performance against those goals actually count in ratings assigned to schools. In New Mexico, for example, a school could receive an “A” rating even if it consistently misses annual goals for its Latino students.
  • Some states created “super subgroups” to ensure that schools with small numbers of students in a particular group—such as English language learners or American Indian students—did not escape responsibility for the achievement of those students. At the same time, however, the report cautions that super subgroups could potentially mask very different performances among the various groups of students making up the super subgroup.
  • Rather than using additional indicators to determine overall and group performance, most states solely rely on state test results and graduation rates for their accountability systems, ignoring other measurements of student performance, such as college and career readiness.
  • Most states’ plans for strengthening their lowest-performing schools are improvements over NCLB, but the report finds a “very real risk” that, in some states, students in large swaths of schools won’t get the support and attention they need. For example, in a number of states, a lack of improved outcomes at the lowest-performing schools only brings about more improvement planning.

In addition to examining the accountability systems that states put forward in their waiver applications, the report offers questions that advocates can ask about (1) state expectations for raising achievement and closing gaps and (2) actions the accountability systems prompt when schools exceed expectations or repeatedly fall short.

“Some states have a long, well-documented history of aiming for the lowest common denominator when given the latitude to set expectations, especially for their most vulnerable students. And in too many places, the waivers allowed more of the same,” said Daria Hall, director of K–12 policy at the Education Trust and author of the report. “Several plans send mixed messages to educators and parents about what schools should be aiming for and whether they really need to focus on educating all kids to high levels. That makes it ever more important for advocates and others to take a close look at these plans and keep a keen eye on their state’s efforts.”

The complete report is available at http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/A_Step_Forward_Or_A_Step_Back.pdf.

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