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MAINTAINING A FOCUS ON SUBGROUPS: NCLB Waivers Could Hinder Subgroup Accountability and Commitment to Closing Achievement Gaps, Finds New CHSE Report

“Reporting is important, but it is no substitute for strong accountability. Transparency and robust parameters are essential to achieving equity in education,” said Rufina Hernández, executive director of CHSE.

The Obama administration’s policy of allowing states to request waivers from key provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—“raises serious concerns about whether traditional subgroups of students will continue to receive the attention and support they need in order to graduate high school ready for college and career,” according to a new report from the Campaign for High School Equity (CHSE), a diverse coalition of national civil rights and education organizations representing communities of color. Findings from the report, Maintaining a Focus on Subgroups in an Era of Elementary and Secondary Education Act Waivers, are based on CHSE’s analysis of thirty-five waiver applications that were approved as of April 2013.

“While the intent of the policy is to support state leadership and innovation in the design of their accountability systems, the great risk for these students is that the complexity and individual variation of the state waiver plans greatly diminishes the clarity and transparency of the accountability system under NCLB,” the report notes. “This makes it very difficult for policymakers, educators, parents and the public to understand and monitor how accountability is serving to identify the needs of these students and to trigger necessary interventions for them.”

Although the report states that NCLB did not go far enough to close “persistent and troubling” gaps in graduation rates, it calls the law’s attention to the progress of at-risk student subgroups, including students of color, Native, English language learners (ELLs), and low-income students, a “hallmark of federal education policy and a critical tool for giving parents, communities, and other stakeholders the information they need to help improve schools in every community.”

Under the waivers granted by the Obama administration, however, some states have been permitted to “abandon a primary focus on subgroup accountability” and “weaken efforts to close achievement gaps and improve education for all students.” Whereas the low academic achievement of a single subgroup triggered an intervention under NCLB, the report notes that approved waiver plans in several states use subgroup data to “inform intervention, but may not trigger it.”

“Reporting is important, but it is no substitute for strong accountability. Transparency and robust parameters are essential to achieving equity in education,” said Rufina Hernández, executive director of CHSE.

The report explores trends in state accountability systems under ESEA waivers and raises concerns in five specific areas: super subgroups; annual measurable objectives; “n-size,” which is a state-established threshold of the number of students in a subgroup at a school that is used accountability purposes; identification of schools in need of improvement; and supports and interventions.

The report calls on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to oversee and require modifications to state accountability policies if states are inadequately addressing the performance of subgroups and makes recommendations on how ED can (1) drive improved subgroup achievement; (2) ensure transparency; (3) monitor states’ annual measureable objectives; (4) engage diverse stakeholders; and (5) lower n-size.

And for states, to ensure the best results for students of color, the report recommends the following core principles that states should adhere to as they implement ESEA waiver plans:

  • Data disaggregation
  • Accountability systems with a primary focus on student academic achievement
  • Report cards that are clear, concise, and understandable
  • Engagement of communities of color
  • Plans to build school and district capacity
  • Support for low-performing schools and subgroups

Maintaining a Focus on Subgroups in an Era of Elementary and Secondary Education Act Waivers is available at

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