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What You Can Learn, or Not, From the Ed. Dept.'s NCLB Waiver Data

No Child Left Behind Act waivers have been around for more than a year, and states are beginning the process of writing applications for renewals, which will allow them to keep their flexibility for at least another two years.

So how has the program worked so far? Are states' new accountability systems under the waivers identifying the "right" schools for the most serious interventions? And are the waivers flagging schools that might be performing well overall, but have big, persistent achievement gaps?

To get at some of those questions, the U.S. Department of Education has spent about a year putting together profiles to help states figure out if their accountability systems under the waivers are cutting the mustard when it comes to school identification. And the administration is beginning to share those profiles with some states, particularly those that were selected for an expedited waiver renewal with an early deadline (late January). The goal is to release all of them publicly, eventually.

So what do these profiles look like? And how do states feel about them? You can check out Kentucky's here, and a letter about the profiles from Deborah S. Delisle, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, here.

The profile paints a picture of where low-performing schools in the Bluegrass State stood when they were singled out for special attention through the state's waiver process. (Waiver states have to identify 5 percent of their absolute worst schools, so called "priority schools," for major turnaround efforts, and another 10 percent of their schools, known as "focus schools," for more targeted interventions.)

What you won't be able to figure out: whether the waiver made any difference in terms of making the lowest-performing schools any better.

And that leaves the key question unanswered, said Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners

"A lot of the data is interesting, but it's just descriptive," Hyslop said. "It describes the state of school performance as states were identifying their priority and focus schools three years ago. But it says nothing about what's happened since—so it shows me just how far we still have to go in getting any answers to even the most basic questions about waivers, like, 'Are priority schools improving?'"

And it isn't just analysts who are scratching their heads. Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education in Kentucky, had essentially the same reaction. And he's unhappy that the profiles looked primarily at NCLB-era metrics (like how a particular school was doing on NCLB math and reading tests) as opposed to how they are faring under the Kentucky's new system developed under the waiver, which considers other factors (like college-readiness).

"These data profiles will not add much value to the public understanding as to whether waivers are working or not," Holliday wrote in an email. "Also, the metrics and the presentation of the metrics will confuse the public and probably many of the 'inside the Beltway' crowd."

What's more, he's concerned about how the profiles will be used in the waiver-renewal process.

"My fear has been and continues to be that during the waiver-extension/renewal process more 'conditions' will surface and the [Education Department] will engage in more micromanagement of state processes," Holliday wrote.

Holliday said he'll be sharing his concerns with the Education Department. So maybe that will lead to changes?

Notably, the waiver profiles aren't the last word on whether the program is helping to improve student achievement. The department is planning to conduct an evaluation of the waivers—but, as with many long-term evaluations we won't see results for awhile, possibly until the 2018-19 school year, when the Obama administration (and maybe the waivers) are long gone.  

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