The Edmond Sun

December 27, 2013

New report finds school accountability in limbo

2 in 3 ‘failing’ schools under NCLB no longer ‘failing’ under waivers

Special to The Sun

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  After years of criticizing No Child Left Behind, over 40 states are now taking a different approach to improving their low-performing schools. Armed with waivers from the federal law, these states are designing and implementing accountability systems based on relative, rather than absolute, measures of school performance. As a result, accountability systems and the low-performing schools they identify are dramatically different, according to a new report from the New America Foundation.

Using data collected from over 20,000 schools in 16 states during the transition from NCLB to waivers, “It’s All Relative” finds major upheaval in school accountability: nearly 4,500, or 65 percent, of schools in NCLB improvement were eased from these interventions under waivers. In other words, two in three formerly “failing” schools are no longer identified by states’ new school accountability systems. And in five states, at least half of the schools identified by NCLB, but not waivers, had previously been in corrective action or restructuring, missing their performance targets for at least four years running.

“The untold story of waivers is that with little warning, hundreds of so-called “failing” schools suddenly weren’t “failing” anymore,” said Anne Hyslop, author of the report and a policy analyst for New America’s Education Policy Program.

The primary reason behind these changes is not additional performance measures, or complicated school grading systems, but rather the new relative approach for identifying the worst schools. With NCLB, schools in improvement fell short of a pre-determined performance standard: Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. With waivers, however, the “standard” is often the number of schools that must be identified — at least 15 percent of schools. This decreased how many schools were placed in federal interventions by one-third, on average, in the 16 states (Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). But there is significant variation: Nevada identified over 85 percent fewer schools under waivers, while Rhode Island only 12 percent fewer. And in order to reach the 15 percent threshold, five states actually named more schools for interventions under waivers than they ever did under NCLB.

“This accountability strategy creates a finite number of school improvement slots,” Hyslop noted.

 “At the same time, states were given flexibility to measure school performance differently, changing how they viewed a school’s relative success. While it may be too soon to tell if 15 percent is the ‘right’ number or if states have chosen the “right” performance measures, landing in the bottom 15 percent matters for schools, teachers, students, and families, and it matters now.”

The stakes for identifying the “right” schools are higher than ever, Hyslop explains, because school interventions under waivers are becoming more focused and rigorous.

She recommends an ambitious federal and state research agenda for waiver implementation, especially as the U.S. Department of Education begins to renew states’ waivers during the 2013–14 school year.

“The only way to determine if waivers are improving school, educator, and student performance is to gather evidence, carefully and systematically, on what is happening and why — and make changes if needed.”