August 8, 2012

Waiver worries

Does Kentucky’s new education accountability model set the bar too low, potentially leaving struggling students behind?

In early February, with the nod from President Barack Obama, Kentucky and nine other states broke free from an unpopular law often reduced to its notorious four letters — NCLB. No Child Left Behind aimed to push all children to proficiency in math and reading by 2014, a lofty goal.

With the news that these states could now devise their own accountability assessment system, complete with new testing benchmarks and nomenclature (for example, persistently low-achieving schools will eventually become “priority” schools), some expressed relief. Teachers, principals and state education officials praised the move. (Now, a total of 32 states and Washington, D.C., have been granted waivers.)

The changes under Kentucky’s NCLB waiver are numerous, complex, and have been in the works since 2009 when the state passed Senate Bill 1 mandating that public school students be ready for college or a career upon graduation.

One of the largest transformations has to do with recognizing progress. Under NCLB, a school may have made progress from one year to the next as a whole, improving test scores, but if one individual subgroup — say poor African-American students — didn’t reach certain testing benchmarks in reading or math, the school could be flagged as underperforming and held accountable. Depending on how many years in a row that group faltered, the school may be branded as failing.

“That’s the piece that people were trying to get out from under — that schools were making great progress, but it would be in the newspaper that they would be labeled as (a) failure,” explains Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education advocacy organization based in Kentucky.

Educators and advocates have accepted those changes, but raised concerns: Are states setting achievement bars too low now that NCLB no longer reigns? Both the Center for American Progress and The Education Trust have questioned many states’ creation of a so-called “super subgroup,” Kentucky included.

Kentucky calls it a “gap group.” Here’s the change: Under NCLB, schools had to demonstrate a closing of the achievement gap for each individual (and traditionally underserved) subgroup: low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and minorities. If they didn’t, the state implemented a range of improvement sanctions.

Now, all those subgroups are being lumped into one giant “gap group.” In order to determine a school’s achievement gap, the percentage of kids who score proficient on reading and math during year-end tests will be taken from each of the different gap group populations — special education, English language learners, minority and low-income — and averaged. That average will then be compared to the ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency to determine the gap. It’s a high target, so the expectation of schools from year to year remains narrowing the gap of this subgroup. If they do that, their overall score improves.

“It definitely does raise a red flag on our end,” says Natasha Ushomirsky. She’s a senior data analyst with the Education Trust, an advocacy group dedicated to shrinking achievement gaps in schools. “Our worry is that we’re taking a step back to a time when the performance of individual groups of students essentially didn’t count, when you could have a high performing group compensate for the low performance of another group.”

From the view of the Education Trust, a reauthorization of NCLB would’ve been preferable to granting states the ability to devise their own accountability model. NCLB actually expired in 2007, but since Congress failed to pass an updated version, the Obama administration put the option of waivers on the table. Ushomirsky says while NCLB was an imperfect law, it did succeed in demanding that “a school had to serve all its students.”

She worries this super “gap group,” which is also being used in New Mexico and a host of other states, could conceivably allow one subgroup to continue to struggle as long as the total group averages out well.

But the Kentucky Department of Education disagrees. Spokeswoman Lisa Gross says, quite simply, history shows that the gap group’s average won’t be good, so there’s no way to hide the fact that kids aren’t learning and improving their performance on tests.

“If you have special needs, if you are eligible for free and reduced price meals, if you’re an ethnic minority, or if you have limited English proficiency, chances are good there’s going to be a gap between your scores and your peers,” Gross says.

Furthermore, the state says this new large gap group will actually subject more schools to scrutiny. Under NCLB, for a school to be held accountable for a particular subgroup, there had to be a minimum number of students. (Ten students per grade and either 60 overall at the school or 15 percent of students in tested grades.)

By combining all groups into one super group, any student who falls into those traditionally underserved populations can have his or her test scores reported and included into the average.

“That’s the tradeoff,” Gross says. “Do you hold only certain schools accountable because they have just enough kids to meet the requirements of that cut-off point? Or do you capture more schools and maybe address an issue that’s a lot broader than people might think.”

Long before the U.S. Department of Education granted Kentucky its waiver, the feds wanted clarification on how this gap group would work. In essence, would individuals get lost in this simplified, aggregate approach to measuring the achievement gap?

In the final waiver application (the waiver that was finally accepted), dated January 2012, Kentucky outlined new efforts to ensure individual groups would still be monitored. First, individual subgroup test scores will be reported to both the state and federal government, just like in the NCLB days. So if a school shows a wide gulf between the scores of African-American students versus white students, that data will surface publicly.

Secondly, individual subgroup scores will determine which schools are deemed “focus” schools, one tier above the lowest ranking — “priority.” Schools that tumble to the lowest 10 percent could eventually become focus schools. Also, schools with individual groups (minority, low-income, English language learners and special education) performing below a certain level will become focus schools. That classification will mean greater (though vague) levels of scrutiny.

Still, Ushomirsky says even with the state’s plan to catch the lowest of the low performing, she feels it still doesn’t hold schools as accountable as NCLB. Under that arrangement, any school — poor, wealthy, elite or struggling — with an individual subgroup that didn’t hit certain standards was immediately flagged, ushering in a range of reforms.

“We know there’s a whole lot (more) kids out there who are not doing as well as they should be,” Ushomirsky says. “And it’s not clear that this accountability system is going to make sure that schools are moving forward for those kids.”

Dena Dossett, Jefferson County Public Schools’ director of planning, admits that last year when the district first heard of this super subgroup, it sounded like a sea change.

“When we were first hearing about the wavier, we said, ‘Wow,’” recalls Dossett. “That’s a huge shift from individual learning groups to this overall gap group.”

But with the final waiver’s provisions in place, including focus schools, she believes this new system will succeed in catching struggling student groups. In fact, a simulation of the new accountability system using 2010-2011 data pinpointed close to 110 schools in need of extra supports due to low overall or subgroup test scores. Under NCLB, that same year’s data reported 111 JCPS schools failed to reach federal benchmarks.

For education veterans, the reconfiguration of policy has become a fairly digestible, anticipated part of the job. Bill Anderson, principal of Western Middle School, has worked in schools for 31 years. Western Middle is one of 18 JCPS schools identified as persistently low achieving.

Anderson says neither the waiver nor NCLB are particularly good or bad. At the end of the day, his job as an administrator is to make sure sagging test scores rise. The same goes for everyone on his staff. It’s a simple takeaway from three decades in a system where the goal stays the same but the tactics evolve.

“We’re expecting all students to learn,” Anderson says. “… So this model versus that model, whether one’s better or not, still the accountability, I feel, is there. One way or another, we’re going to do our job.”