Arguably the best thing about the federal No Child Left Behind act was the way it focused attention on achievement gaps. Under NCLB, schools have been responsible for the performance of students who are poor, have disabilities, are from racial and ethnic groups, or aren’t proficient in English. They can’t hide low test scores for those subgroups behind overall averages.
Now Indiana and 10 other states are seeking waivers from NCLB’s requirements, and there’s reason for concern about whether the same level of accountability will continue for groups of students that have sometimes been left behind.
Indiana wants to use its proposed new A-to-F school grading system as a single accountability system for schools. If its waiver request is approved by the feds, no longer will schools face the confusing situation of being awarded letter grades by the state and having to worry about making “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB.
Under Indiana’s plan, instead of having to meet performance standards for each of the subgroups identified in NCLB, schools would focus on a “super subgroup” – the lowest-performing 25 percent of students.
The U.S. Department of Education suggested in a preliminary response that that may not be good enough. A letter from an assistant secretary of education, posted by the Associated Press, identified several “significant concerns” about Indiana’s waiver request. Among them: “How Indiana intends to incorporate a subgroup based on the ‘bottom 25 percent’ of students into its accountability system.”
That was in December. Stephanie Sample, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the two sides have been exchanging information, and state officials are confident they have provided the clarification that the feds wanted.
“We fully expect to receive a waiver when they make the first announcement, as we have been working closely with USDOE staff to address any concerns they had,” she told School Matters.
Indiana argued it isn’t ignoring the NCLB subgroups, because students in the bottom 25 percent are more likely than others to be minorities, receive special-education services, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, or lack English proficiency.
The state also pointed out that “all schools have a bottom 25 percent,” so the new approach would carry accountability for all public schools. Under NCLB, schools are accountable for the test scores of a subgroup only if they enroll at least 30 students in the group. That has made it easier for small, homogeneous schools to make adequate yearly progress.
On the other hand, Indiana’s A-to-F system gives a relatively small role to the bottom 25 percent. A school can get a boost in its grade if that group shows high growth in test scores. But schools where most students pass the tests won’t need a boost. Theoretically, they won’t need to worry about whether kids at the bottom are improving.
And it appears that schools will no longer have to publicize whether poor, minority and special-needs students are passing state tests at significantly lower rates than the general student population.
At any rate, it appears the state won’t delay its new A-to-F system until it gets word on its NCLB waiver. Approval of the new grading criteria is on the agenda for the next State Board of Education meeting, Wednesday morning (Feb. 8) in Indianapolis.