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Scores Are a Tribute to Hard Work, but Federal Standards Dictate Even More

Continuous improvement is the mantra of today’s classrooms.  Even when you’re trying your hardest and doing your best, the drumbeat of NCLB keeps reminding you, there’s even more to do.  That’s the case with today’s release connected with federal NCLB standards of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  The State Department of Education issued a press release today. You can also see lists of schools and districts that did not meet AYP. The bottom line on today’s results:  Students are generally performing better than last year on the statewide tests (CMT and CAPT).  However, that improvement is not good enough for NCLB.

A hypothetical case demonstrates how NCLB targets are periodically increased, making it more challenging for schools to meet AYP as time goes on.   Consider a school that, for CAPT reading, had 81 percent of its students at or above proficiency in 2010, and this year had 84 percent of its students at or above that level (a 3 percentage-point increase). That school would have failed to meet the AYP target of 2011 on the merits of these scores, even though it made AYP last year and its overall performance on the test improved.

National policymakers have promised to revisit NCLB, but there has been little action, leaving educators and students with a flawed law.  Blogger Bob Murphy offers his insights on what needs to be done below.

The Current State of NCLB: Stalemate

By Bob Murphy

The State Department of Education has released its latest AYP Report and we have no reason to believe that the widely documented flaws in the law will be corrected anytime soon. The law has been eligible for reauthorization for over four years now.  Congress seems incapable of facilitating a democratic bipartisan process, even in an area so clearly connected to the nation’s future economic well-being as its public education system.

Earlier this summer, Secretary Duncan announced that more than 80% of the nation’s schools would fail to make AYP in 2011 if Congress did not complete reauthorization by September.  The secretary’s prediction is higher than that estimated by CEA in a study done in 2006 projecting AYP trends in Connecticut.  The inevitability of the eventual failure of nearly all of America’s schools by June of 2014, however, is no longer a matter of dispute. yet stasis continues to be the order of the day. Is it any wonder that in a recent ABC/Wall Street Journal poll only 13% of Americans approve of the performance of Congress? Arne Duncan threatened to begin issuing waivers to states if Congress failed to step up to the plate, and, of course, they did. The only one who appeared surprised by this was Secretary Duncan.

Many states have been pleading for regulatory relief in lieu of reauthorization. In an August letter NEA urged the President to grant regulatory relief. Indeed, since the law’s inception, over 600 waivers have been granted by the Secretary of Education, but what Duncan proposes is a very different type of waiver, because it will require a quid pro quo similar to Race to the Top. In order to receive a waiver, states will have to meet certain, as yet to be determined, conditions consistent with the administration’s education reform agenda. Even without the details, many states have expressed interest in applying, including Connecticut. The Center on Education Progress (CEP) has set up a “Waiver Watch” on its website. This is their best estimate of who may seek waivers.

There has been little debate over whether or not the Secretary has waiver authority. The point of contention is the imposition of conditions that are beyond the scope of the current law. California, in its request for a waiver, raised this objection:

Finally, the conditional nature of the waivers presents problems for California. I understand that waivers may be granted only if a state commits to certain policy priorities of the Administration, including adopting college- and career-ready standards, imposing a differentiated accountability system, and adopting a teacher/ principal evaluation system that incorporates student test results. These policy priorities would mark dramatic deviations from the existing policies required under NCLB. States would be asked to make commitments beyond NCLB with no commensurate funding to provide the state capacity to implement such requirements. The appropriate forum for consideration of any new legal mandates is through the reauthorization process involving transparency and Congressional democratic debate.

If the Administration is unable to support robust state-determined accountability systems prior to ESEA reauthorization, I urge you to ensure that states are not held hostage to new and under-funded policy requirements in order to receive necessary relief from the unrelenting march toward mislabeling hard-working and effective schools for improvement, corrective action, and restructuring.
[Emphasis added.]

We should all share the concerns raised in the California letter. There is a fundamental issue in all this. It is all about how the federal role in state and local education is determined: through legislation and regulation (as in ESEA) or through competitive coercion (as in Race to the Top and now through the conditional granting of waivers). In the guise of congressional inaction a new reform agenda is taking root in America unburdened by the messiness of public discussion or democratic process. The old agenda was all about testing and winners and losers, the new agenda is all about teachers: how they are paid, how they are evaluated, and how they are incentivized to perform and, oh yes, even more testing. Meanwhile, the march to mythological Lake Wobegon continues unabated.

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