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Some NCLB Waiver States Worry Accountability 'Pause' Comes With Strings

Here's a wonky, but important question: What exactly should an accountability "pause" entail, and what shouldn't it entail?

Why do I ask? Many states are switching to new standards and the assessments that go along with them, so the U.S. Department of Education has given states the option of hitting the snooze button, so to speak, on their school rating systems.

The "pause" essentially gives schools time to adjust to the brand-new tests, without having to worry about whether the scores would affect their overall grade or label that might result from the tests. After all, school principals have been moved or even dismissed when their school drops suddenly from an A to a D, for example.

Naturally, the prospect of a pause takes some pressure off local districts and schools, many of which already have plenty on their plates as they prepare for new tests linked to new standards. And so the pause option was a really popular feature for states applying to renew their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

More than a dozen of the 43 waiver recipients appear to be asking for some sort of accountability pause including the District of Columbia, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Oregon, Colorado and Connecticut.

And even some states without waivers from the NCLB law, including California, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Washington, asked for—and got—the pause.

But the flexibility came with an asterisk. States will still need to set student achievement targets, known in NCLB law's highly technical lexicon as annual measurable objectives, or "AMOs," for the 2014-15 school year. They don't have to do this right away, however. States have until January of 2016 to set the targets for 2014-15. If states decide to wait that long, they would be setting achievement goals for schools retroactively, long after this spring, when students have taken the assessments.

This has a senior education official in one state puzzled. The official is worried that going back and setting targets for districts on tests their students have already taken would "blindside" the districts, which hadn't been aware of what the goals were, or even the fact that there would be goals.

The official thought the accountability pause would simply allow this year's tests to be used as a new baseline. And having to set AMOs, in the official's view, seems to pretty much defeat the purpose of the pause. But the Education Department has told that state (and presumably, others) that it must include a promise to set the retroactive achievement targets in its waiver-renewal application.

To be sure, this requirement isn't out of the blue. The Education Department did put states on notice, in a Frequently-Asked-Questions document released back in February, which they had to continue setting AMOs, but could set them retroactively. The department wrote that states seeking the pause would need to continue to identify schools for intensive interventions and "report performance for all students and all student subgroups against AMOs."

And here's the relevant snippet on setting the AMOs retroactively (warning, you'll want to grab your Waiverspeak-to-English Dictionary, if you haven't already):

betsy waiver snip.PNG

Still, more than one state is perplexed by this, said Kirsten Carr, the program director for accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers. And to its credit, she said, the department has worked to outline different approaches that a state might take to setting AMOs for brand new standards and tests retroactively, including comparing districts and schools to a state's average score.

But the states' point, she said, is that in setting these AMOs, they may end up telling schools they missed a goal they didn't even know existed.

It's worth pointing out that many accountability hawks Inside the Beltway, including civil rights organizations, have raised concerns in the past about whether the department's waivers have let states off the hook on a number of fronts, especially when it comes to poor and minority students. And AMOs are a hallmark of the NCLB law, so it's possible the department thought that letting them go by the wayside, even for a year, was a bridge too far.

"I think they're trying to walk that line," between those various interests, Carr said. "So we'll see where we end up."  

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