Va., Md. and D.C. seek to opt out of key parts of No Child Left Behind law

February 25, 2012

For the past decade, public schools nationwide have aimed for a target fixed in federal law: that 100 percent of students should pass reading and math tests by 2014. Now Virginia wants to lower the goal to 75 percent for reading and 70 percent for math.

Maryland and the District also want to revise expectations for student achievement, part of a national movement to seek federal approval to opt out of key parts of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. Many educators say the law saddles schools with unrealistic goals and unfair penalties.

But Virginia appears to be seeking an especially significant departure from an accountability system that demands progress each year toward the 2014 target.

Under the law, schools are flagged if any of several groups of students identified by race, ethnicity, poverty or other factors fails to make adequate progress on state tests or certain other measures. Those flagged year after year can face sanctions up to reorganization or closure.

“No Child Left Behind is misidentifying our schools,” said Patricia I. Wright, Virginia superintendent of public instruction. “It is not a reasonable approach.” Nearly two-thirds of Virginia’s schools failed in 2011 to meet the law’s standard for adequate progress.

Critics of Virginia’s proposal worry that it is a retreat from one of the law’s most important aims: unmasking and addressing large achievement gaps among groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, poor children, students with disabilities and those who are learning English.

“There’s real reason to be concerned that under the proposed plan, low-income students in Virginia and minority students in Virginia will again be overlooked,” said Andy Rotherham, a former member of the state Board of Education who writes and consults on education issues.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in the fall that he would waive portions of the law for states that outline alternative plans and agree to certain reforms.

Eleven states have received waivers. Virginia, Maryland and the District are among more than two dozen applicants for a second round, with proposals due Tuesday.

The plans are all different, complicated and tediously replete with acronyms and mathematical formulas. But they are at the heart of a nationwide rethinking about how to rate schools and what remedies should be available for those that perennially struggle.

Virginia proposes static performance targets. Maryland and the District, meanwhile, aim to ratchet up goals in each of the next six years, eventually cutting in half the percentage of non-proficient students — both overall and in each subgroup.

That means Maryland expects about 91 percent of its students to be proficient in math by 2017, and 93 percent in reading. The District, starting with lower passing rates, has lower targets: roughly 74 percent proficient in math by 2017 and 73 percent in reading.

The Education Department will judge waiver applications in the spring. Federal officials can demand changes before granting requests. If approved, plans would take effect next school year.

To rate their schools, Maryland and the District plan to roll test scores, academic growth measures and achievement gaps into a “performance index.” That number would be used to place schools into one of five tiers, with the worst-performing schools getting the most intensive levels of state intervention and oversight.

Virginia’s proposal

Virginia is taking a different tack.

The commonwealth wants to judge schools by marrying its own accreditation system, which was in place before the advent of No Child Left Behind, with a new method of defining and accounting for the achievement of minority student groups.

The state accreditation system is based on graduation rates and proficiency on math, language arts, social studies and science tests.

Schools will be fully accredited when 75 percent of all students score proficient on reading tests and 70 percent score proficient in other subjects. High schools must also earn a certain number of points based on the number of students who earn diplomas and GEDs.

Schools that don’t earn full accreditation are subject to an academic review process meant to identify and fix problems. But relatively few schools are captured in that net: 4 percent of Virginia schools were not fully accredited last year, compared with 62 percent that fell short under No Child Left Behind.

Wright said she expects the number of non-accredited schools to rise as tougher state tests are implemented in the next two years. State Board of Education members said when they unanimously approved the waiver request last week that the accreditation system needs examination.

“Our first objective here is to get a waiver and the flexibility it brings,” state board President David M. Foster said. “It is not the end — indeed, it is the beginning, in many ways, of the next generation of discussion . . . of accountability in Virginia.”

No Child Left Behind requires Virginia to report on the progress of seven student subgroups. That information will continue to be reported, but it won’t be used to determine which schools are successful and which need help.

‘Proficiency gap groups’

Instead, parents looking at a school’s annual report card would see information about how three newly defined minority student groups — “proficiency gap groups,” in the state’s lingo — are faring.

The new groups are set up so that the test scores of a student who falls into more than one traditional subgroup — a poor black student, for example — would be counted only once.

Group 1 includes all students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency and poor children. Group 2: African American children not already in Group 1. Group 3: Latino children not already in Group 1.

The school’s report card would indicate a proficiency gap if any one of those three groups fails to reach the benchmark pass rates or one of several alternative measures.

Concerns raised

Some advocates for the disadvantaged worry that any accountability formula that merges subgroups of students could reduce pressure on schools to help children in need, such as those with disabilities.

In Virginia’s plan, the highest-performing schools would be recognized as “reward” schools. Meanwhile, the bottom 5 percent of schools that receive federal Title I poverty aid — which amounts to 2 percent of all state schools — would be identified as “priority” schools. They would be required to hire consultants to oversee a three-year improvement effort. Interventions could include replacing faculty, hiring a new principal or closing.

Another 10 percent of Title I schools with the largest proficiency gaps — or 4 percent of Virginia's schools — would undergo less dramatic interventions.

Unlike Maryland and the District, Virginia doesn’t plan to categorize schools that fall between the extremes. Critics say that would leave a vast number of middle-of-the-road schools that might have major achievement gaps but would not qualify as focus or priority schools.

“Those schools aren’t going to get that intervention and identification for support that they’re currently getting under No Child Left Behind,” said Charlottesville lawyer Angela Ciolfi of JustChildren, an advocacy group associated with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

A ‘dramatic improvement’

Wright said the notion that state officials should be responsible for every school’s performance is “not reasonable.” She said that job falls to local school systems.

Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale called the state’s proposal a “dramatic improvement,” helping schools shed what he said has become an excessive focus on test preparation.

About half of Fairfax’s 200 schools did not meet targets under No Child Left Behind last year. All but two were fully accredited by the state.

“By having a reasonable expectation for schools that is not so onerous,” Dale said, “you can now begin to include much more engaging project-based learning, experiential learning — and not be so hung up on rote memorization.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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