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A Look at How One State Is Using Its NCLB Waiver to Close Gaps

The Obama administration's waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are nearly three years old. So are states actually making progress toward the student achievement goals they set out in their flexibility requests? The answer seems to be yes—at least in Minnesota. 

The state has long been considered a standout performer—its students scored well above the national average on the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. But Minnesota has also long had persistent achievement gaps between its high-achieving white students, and poor and minority students. In fact, for a while, it had the biggest achievement gaps in the country—it was even called out by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Back in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education told states seeking NCLB waivers that they had to pick from among a few overarching goals for student achievement, to replace the all-purpose, NCLB goal of bringing all students to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year.

The North Star State opted to cut its achievement gap in half by 2017—and the vast majority of its districts are on track to clear that bar, said Brenda Cassellius, the state's education commissioner. In designing its waiver accountability system, the state also steered clear of a popular statistical technique for waiver states known as "super-subgroups" which allowed states to combine various groups of traditionally overlooked students, such as English-language learners and students in special education, into a single category for accountability purposes. Instead, Minnesota decided to put an even heavier emphasis on gap- closing in its new, post-NCLB accountability system. 

The state had some promising, early results with this strategy, according to this story by my former colleague, Michele McNeil. And it looks like Minnesota has continued that trend this academic year. 

When you consider only historically underperforming groups of students—including students in poverty, English language-learners, students in special education, and racial minorities—59 percent of Minnesota's schools are on track with the state's gap-closing goal in math, and another 65 percent are on track in reading, Cassellius said.  And if you back just one of the seven groups out for each school, then the numbers are even higher, with three-quarters of schools on track to the state's goal in math and 79 percent in reading. 

The state has other validation too. After a big 3rd-grade literacy push that started in 2011, Minnesota 4rth graders scored placed 10th in the nation on the National Assesment of Educational Progress, moving up from 22nd two years ago. 

The gaps aren't closing quite as fast as the state would like, Cassellius said. That's partly because, if all students are improving at a similar rate, achievement gaps may remain the same or similar, even if a lot of progress has been made, Cassellius said.  

"We're not the worst in the nation [anymore], but our gaps are still large," Cassellius said. "Everybody's boat has risen and so the gaps don't change as much as we would like them to change." But, she added, "We don't want artificially small gaps because somebody went backwards."

But Minnesota was one of three states recently cited in a report by the Education Trust, which looks out for poor and minority students. Ed Trust found that, in Minnesota, schools deemed "celebration eligible" or "reward" schools did about as well when it comes to math results for African-Americans students as schools singled out for improvement did on results for white students.

After the report came out, the state checked to ensure that it was identifying the right schools for rewards, Cassellius said. It found that reward schools were outperforming state averages by substantial margins, including when it comes to proficiency rates for many of historically low-performing groups, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The state makes a point of sharing all of this information with its school districts. In fact, districts are given their achievement gap data and told exactly how many students they need to help get over the proficiency bar in order to stay on track with the state's waiver goal. Minnesota may be the only state in the country that shares this level of data with its districts. 

Given all this activity, Cassellius was "surprised and perplexed" that Minnesota wasn't among the states tapped for an expedited waiver renewal. That would have let the state to keep its waiver in place for up to four years, instead of just up to three. And it would have allowed Minnesota to participate in a speedier, streamlined renewal process. Seven states have been invited to go this route: Kentucky, Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Tennesse, and Virginia.

To be sure, the feds didn't consider student outcomes under the waivers when deciding which states would be allowed to go for this special "deluxe" renewal. Instead, they looked at whether the state had made changes to its teacher-evaluation plan. But Cassellius says Minnesota has stuck by its initial vision, and hasn't asked for any delays or changes to its timeframe. 

So how are other states doing when it comes to closing the achievement gap? Is Minnesota an outlier in having some success? Or are some states closing gaps even faster? Great question. And we still don't know the answer. The Education Department has been working on profiles that show how subgroup students are fairing under the new flexibility—but they haven't been released publicly yet. 

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