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New initiatives making schools data readily available

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Parents across the Washington region will soon have more readily available — and useful— information about how their public schools are doing, the result of new initiatives underway at the local and state level for reporting and displaying education data.

The District, Maryland and Virginia are pledging some changes as part of their applications to the Obama administration for exemption from unpopular requirements of the No Child Left Behind law, among them the mandate for 100 percent proficiency by 2014 on standardized reading and math tests.

The U.S. Education Department is offering the waivers to states that adopt an “index” system of multiple measures that go beyond annual test results in determining school performance. These include test score growth over time, graduation rates and other evidence that schools have produced students who are college- or career-ready. States also must show plans for evaluating teachers and principals by multiple measures.

Schools will still have to meet specific academic performance expectations, but they will have new latitude in defining success. With the waivers, states can also avoid No Child’s prescribed improvement strategies that allow students to transfer out of schools labeled as failing and that require private contract tutoring to struggling students.

States will also be required to identify the lowest-achieving 5 percent of schools and make aggressive efforts to improve them.

Maryland and the District already have a head start in pursuit of the waivers, having committed to many of the same reforms in their successful bids for the administration’s Race to the Top grants.

Unlike with Race to the Top, there is no cap on the number of waivers to be granted. Eleven states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee — submitted applications by the initial deadline of Nov. 14. The District, Maryland and Virginia are aiming for the next application window in mid-February. New accountability systems could be in place as early as spring.

Officials are reaching out to local school leaders, teachers, parents and other community stakeholders for ideas on what the index should include.

“What we’re doing is allowing parents, teachers and administrators to sort of define education for themselves,” said Kayleen Irizarry, D.C. state assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education. She said the District will hold a series of town hall meetings over the next couple of months to discuss school measures.

In the District, other efforts to deepen the pool of publicly available school data are nearing completion. D.C. Public Schools, the Public Charter School Board and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are all expected to roll out revamped school performance reports in coming weeks, all based on the idea of providing multiple measures of progress.

As part of commitments it made to win $75 million in Race to the Top funds last year, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education will introduce a “Schoolwide Growth Model” similar to the one it is preparing for the No Child waiver application. The charter board will roll out an ambitious new Performance Management Framework that for the first time will rank schools by “tiers” of effectiveness across 15 indicators, including test score growth, and rates of re-enrollment and college acceptance.

D.C. Public Schools will release “School Scorecards” with similar metrics, in addition to data on attendance, expulsions and suspensions, and retention of “effective” and “highly effective” teachers as assessed by its IMPACT evaluation system.

Educators credit No Child Left Behind with shining a new light on racial achievement gaps and the status of children with special needs. But they also say that the laser focus on annual test scores has put a failure stamp on schools that might actually be serving children.

Faced with the prospect of no action in Congress to modify the law before 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan initiated the waiver program. The exemptions will relieve officials from having to deliver large amounts of discouraging news about school progress in 2014.

Under the current configuration of the law, 62 percent of Virginia schools and 44 percent in Maryland were deemed failing in 2011, percentages that would almost certainly continue to climb.

The numbers are even more stark in the District, where 162 of 218 public and public charter schools (74 percent) failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, as defined by the law. Without a waiver, that number is projected to rise to 179 (82 percent).

“We made a lot of progress with No Child Left Behind,” said Mary Gable, Maryland’s assistant state superintendent for academic policy. “But it put many schools in AYP jail.”

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