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NCLB Waiver Plans: How Important Are Subgroups and AMOs?

If you haven't yet read all 11 No Child Left Behind Act waiver applications, read this story instead—my attempt at synthesizing the major components of states' plans to use flexibility to implement their own accountability systems.

It's clear that these first-round waiver applications already raise some significant questions about the future of state-led education accountability. Among them:

• Will a new emphasis on "super" subgroups really work to close achievement gaps and bring the lowest-performing students up to speed? More than half of the 11 states are proposing a heavy emphasis on new "super" subgroups that encompass either the lowest 25 percent of students in each school, or a melding of the smaller traditional subgroups (e.g. English-language learners, special education students) into one larger subgroup. States have good reason to do this—to alleviate problems with "N-size," to remove a perhaps oversized emphasis on a single cohort of kids—but will individual groups with varying needs get lost in a bigger subgroup? Many of the states still pay attention to individual subgroups in one way or another, but will it be enough?

• Do AMOs count for anything meaningful anymore? These annual measurable objectives, or academic targets, must still be set every year, and for the traditional NCLB smaller subgroups. But most states aren't emphasizing these AMOs in their grading systems at all—and it's these grading systems that are driving much of the states' accountability. So even though subgroups are prominent in the AMOs, if they don't count for much, are they that meaningful?

• How much leeway will federal officials give to the states that need to pass laws to make their plans happen? Will they still get waivers, at least conditionally? New Mexico, Georgia, and New Jersey all need legislation to implement new statewide teacher evaluation systems. In fact, New Jersey has an ambitious legislative package outlined in its waiver package, the success of which the legislation seems far from certain.

• What about the choice kids? States will need to come clean about what they plan to do with the small number of students who are taking advantage of the school choice option that NCLB requires schools to offer once they continue to fail to make AYP. Will the students get to stay in those schools, at least for awhile? Most states don't address this.

• Will SES survive, in some form? Although only Colorado and Oklahoma really address supplemental education services (aka tutoring) and choice head on, with some intention to keep it. Most states identify tutoring as a meaningful intervention for low-performing schools. But, as Steven Pines of the Education Industry Association, in Vienna, Va., observed: "Who's delivering those services and how they're structured, well, those details are glossed over." So, there might still be a prominent place for outside tutoring providers even in states that don't want to keep a formal "SES" program, he added.

• And how easy will it be for parents, schools, and members of a local community to understand these new accountability systems? They're incredibly complex, with varying student achievement goals. (For example, in Kentucky, growth targets are set using standard deviations, a statistical method that makes a lot of sense, but may be an elusive concept to the average parent.) As stated above, sometimes AMOs count for a lot, sometimes not at all. Many states are using A-F letter grades, others are creating indices, and systems of colored flags and stars. Some states have had their systems in place for years, such as Florida, but even then these waiver plans are driving some changes. How easy will it be for a school to know exactly what it has to do to make the grade?

To read state's applications, set the map below in motion then click on the state to find the link:

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