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TURNING BACK THE CLOCK?: ESEA Waivers Could Slow Progress on High School Graduation Rate Accountability, New Alliance Analysis Finds

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“Waivers offer states a tremendous opportunity; rather than being constrained by the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act, states can design and implement innovative reforms that improve their education systems and more effectively prepare their students for college and a career,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.
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An extensive analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows that recent progress in holding schools accountable for how many students they graduate from high school—the ultimate goal of K–12 education—may be slowed in some states based on waivers recently granted under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The Alliance’s findings are contained in a new report, The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability, which includes a review of approved waiver plans submitted by thirty-four states and the District of Columbia. (States whose waiver plans are reflected in the report are colored in blue in the map above.)

“Waivers offer states a tremendous opportunity; rather than being constrained by the decade-old No Child Left Behind Act, states can design and implement innovative reforms that improve their education systems and more effectively prepare their students for college and a career,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “While waivers can provide needed flexibility in many areas, unfortunately a number of waiver plans appear to turn back the clock on high school graduation rate accountability.”

Based on an initial formula developed by the nation’s governors, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued graduation rate regulations in 2008 that required all public high schools to use the same, accurate graduation rate calculation and report a graduation rate for both the entire student body, as well as for various subgroups of students, including students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. The regulations required states to establish ambitious but achievable graduation rate goals and targets and intervene if a subgroup of students fell short of these targets.

The report notes that each state will still be required to calculate and report high school graduation rates in accordance with the 2008 regulations. Only a few states, however, are fully implementing the 2008 graduation rate regulations for accountability purposes as well.

According to the report, waiver plans in many states run counter to the intent of the 2008 regulations. For example:

  • Eleven states have been approved to use a measure of high school completion that is inconsistent with the 2008 regulations. For example, two states are permitted to include a General Education Diploma (GED) in their accountability system when the 2008 regulations explicitly say the GED cannot be used.
  • In eleven states, accountability for the high school graduation rates of various student subgroups—students of color, low-income students, students with a disability, and English language learners—is weak or nonexistent.
  • In twelve states, high school graduation rates account for less than 25 percent of the state’s accountability system and no longer counterbalance the emphasis on test scores, creating a possible incentive for states to “push out” low-performing students in order to increase a school’s overall test scores.
  • Ten states lack the safeguards originally put in place by ED to maintain an emphasis on graduating as many students as possible in four years while also providing the flexibility to graduate some students in more than four years.

A breakdown of states that fall into each category, as well as a thorough analysis of each state’s approved waiver plan, are included in the report.

Not all states, however, are implementing policies that are inconsistent with each provision of the 2008 regulations. Only modest changes are necessary to bring many states into full compliance with the letter and spirit of the 2008 regulations. And some states, such as Delaware and New York, are implementing policies that are comparable to or stronger than the 2008 regulations.

Report Recommendations

In the short term, the report recommends that ED and states work together to address discrepancies between the approved 2008 regulations and the recently approved waivers, including inaccurate and inconsistent measures of high school completion, the inclusion of GEDs, and the lack of subgroup accountability. Over the longer term—i.e., when state waivers need to be renewed—the report urges ED and states to implement a stronger and more coherent system of high school graduation rate accountability that aligns with the 2008 regulations and ensures that high schools with low graduation rates are properly identified and receive targeted support.

“Ultimately, the most effective way to assure effective graduation rate policy is for the U. S. Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in a way that holds states accountable for improving high school graduation rates for all students, especially those who have historically been underserved by the nation’s high schools,” said Wise.

The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability is available here.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.