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Should School Goals Under NCLB Waivers Vary by Race, Ethnicity?

During last night's debate between the education advisers to the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney adviser Phil Handy voiced a hearty disapproval for the No Child Left Behind waivers being granted by the Obama administration, calling the result "unfortunate."

He said: "Many of these states are setting different accountability standards for different constituencies of children."

And indeed, he is basically right. As I explain in my story, states are using the freedoms given them under the waivers to reset their "annual measurable objectives," or AMOs. No longer are they required to set the same targets for all subgroups of children, with the ultimate goal being 100 percent proficiency for all kids by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Instead, a state's goals might look like this: By 2017, the proficiency rates in reading in any given school should be 87 percent for white students, 75 percent for black students, 65 percent for special education students, and so on, and so on. (This is a real example—from Delaware's approved waiver application.)

Is setting different performance standards for schools really a bad thing?

Almost everyone agrees that NCLB's demand of 100 percent perfection is impossible, and resulted in schools "failing" even though they may have generally been making strides in improving student outcomes.

So the U.S. Department of Education, through the waiver process, shifted the focus to closing achievement gaps between groups of at-risk students. And so while Handy and other critics are focusing on that end number—and how those numbers differ by race and ethnicity—it's important to look at the number at the beginning, and the resulting rate of growth. Those numbers also differ by race and ethnicity—but because they demand that schools show more growth in learning for the kids farthest behind.

In my example above from Delaware, the rate of growth for white students would be 12 percentage points, while the rate of growth for black students would be 26 points, and special education students would see 35 points of growth.

So which number matters most: The proficiency goals six years from now, or the rate of growth?

As the Center on Education Policy's Maria Ferguson told me, the problem is one of "optics." In other words, the messaging is problematic.

You see that in Florida, where folks got very upset when they saw the new, varying goals set by race and ethnicity—and state officials had to scramble to do damage control. And in Virginia, where people were irate at not just an inattention to closing the achievement gap, but the varying proficiency standards for groups of students.

President Obama was asked about the issue during an NBC News interview earlier this month, and now the Romney campaign has jumped on the issue.

As the Education Trust explained in a letter to the editor of a Florida newspaper: "The strategic plan adopted by the Florida Board of Education does indeed set different goals for different groups of students. While that may feel 'just plain wrong' to some, it's absolutely the right thing to do. If we are to close the achievement gap, we need to demand more and faster progress for students of color."

I've seen the charts states put out showing their academic achievement goals for schools, which show lower proficiency targets for at-risk students. It's hard to argue with the black-and-white numbers. Perhaps states would be well served to do the math for all of us, and make sure the rate of growth—which is higher for those at-risk students—is also a number in those charts.

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