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Democrats Call on Ed. Department to Ensure Equity in NCLB Waiver Guidance

Ahead of the U.S. Department of Education's No Child Left Behind waiver guidance, expected this week, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Democrats who represent majority-minority districts are urging Education Secretary Arne Duncan to ensure the academic achievement of all students.

In a letter sent to Duncan Monday, Miller and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, asked the department to guarantee that states seeking a renewal of their waivers remain accountable for the achievement of all students, including minority students, students with disabilities, low-income students, and English language learners.

"While there are certainly provisions of No Child Left Behind that must be improved, the most important legacy of the law remains the requirement that every school be held accountable for the academic performance of all its students ... including for students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners," the lawmakers wrote in a letter dated Nov. 10.

Since the department began its waiver process, some lawmakers—Miller especially—have voiced concerns that the achievement and graduation rates of some subgroups of students are not factoring into accountability decisions in a meaningful way. Unless those issues are fully addressed through the renewal process, the lawmakers say, waivers will undermine the federal government's role in protecting and promoting equity in education.

Miller, an original author of the NCLB law, who's retiring at the end of this year, has been a particular thorn in the department's side on this issue.

In January 2012, Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate education committee who is also retiring at the end of the year, sent a letter to Duncan outlining similar concerns about many of the waivers' accountability provisions. Then, in September 2012, Miller wrote to Duncan again to convey his fear that many states were trying to avoid certain graduation rate reporting regulations.

Most recently, in February of this year, Miller and members of the Tri-Caucus sent a similar letter to Duncan to call for the protection of civil rights in the waiver process.

The Nov. 10 letter includes some early data that bolster the lawmakers' concerns, that the achievement of individual subgroups of students, especially those in the poorest-performing schools, is often masked in the state-developed differentiated accountability systems approved by the department through the waiver process. 

The letter cites a recent report from the Education Trust that tracked data from three states and found that the performance of individual subgroups of students are not being adequately captured in the accountability systems, resulting in schools receiving top ratings despite poor performance of students of color and low-income kids.

The letter also draws on an analysis from the Alliance for Excellent Education, which found 16 states and territories with waivers that had little or no subgroup accountability for high school graduation rates.

"Put quite simply, when annual measurable objectives for student performance by subgroup play no part in identification of schools for reward or high-achieving status, vulnerable students are being left behind," the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers urged Duncan to make the waiver renewal process transparent and to use actual student outcomes—including student growth, subgroup performance, graduation rates, and the improvement of low-performing schools—in determining the renewal of their waiver. Up until this point, waiver states haven't been on the hook for actually improving student outcomes, just for developing plans that conform to the department's accountability vision.

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