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Arne Duncan Wants Accountability in ESEA, But It's Already Shifted In Waivers

The Obama administration has championed accountability in a bill to rewrite the current version of Elementary and Secondary Education Act that's expected to pass the Senate this week. (For all the details on an amendment to bolster accountability, click here.)

But the administration—and its waivers from the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act—have already played a huge role in shifting the federal role in monitoring states' progress towards turning around low-performing schools and helping struggling students.

That's angered the civil rights community, which wishes the Senate bill had stronger protections, but is also not so thrilled with the waivers. States, on the other hand, are generally grateful for the flexibility, even though many didn't love wheeling and dealing with the Education Department on the finer points of their accountability plans.

In fact, whether NCLB is rewritten this year or not, its accountability provisions will almost certainly never be the same as they were back in 2002, thanks to waivers. (Refresher: NCLB Classic called for states to set achievement targets and measure schools progress towards them, with the goal of getting all students to the "proficiency level" on state tests by 2013-14. States had to intervene in schools that were continually failing to meet achievement. More here.)

So what are the specific changes under waivers? And how did they weaken, or fix, the law's accountability provisions?

  • Waivers essentially let states out of the NCLB's signature yardstick, Adequate Yearly Progress, and allowed them figure out how to identify—and intervene in—most schools, except for the absolute lowest performing and schools with really big achievement gaps. But fixes for struggling schools has been one of the hardest pieces of waiver implementation to get right. More than half of states have been cited by the department for not doing enough to ensure that faltering schools are getting better. What's more, dramatic interventions for the lowest-performing schools under the School Improvement Grant program, which has received more than $6 billion over the past decade, have been a mixed bag.
  • Waivers allowed states to combine different subgroups of students for accountability purposes, into so-called "super subgroups." Super-subgroups eliminated the need for a wonky statistical technique ('n' sizes) which left some kids didn't count towards a school's accountability rating. But they also make it harder to figure out how a specific group of kids, say English-language learners, are performing under the new, waiver-driven accountability systems.
  • Waivers allowed states to "pause" school rating systems this year, as states transition to new assessments aligned to more rigorous standards. And so far, the "pause" has been really popular, with more than half a dozen states that have been approved for waiver renewals so far taking the department up on it, including Kansas, Nevada, West Virginia, South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia. States may be held accountable for meeting certain goals—but, in a somewhat bizarre twist, the goals would be retroactive. Even states without waivers have taken the department up on the "pause."
  • Waivers arguably allowed the biggest and most populous state in the country—California—out of major accountability requirements for two years in a row, and maybe longer. Why? California got a "double testing" waiver for the 2013-14 school year, meaning that it could use "field tests" with all its students. Field tests can't be used for accountability purposes. And then the very next year, the Golden State got the chance to "pause" school ratings. So that's two years without tests really counting for many Golden State schools, and without clear data on how students are doing.
  • Waivers are complex and difficult to monitor, meaning it's really hard to tell if they've actually moved the needle on student achievement. And states are measuring school performance in a wide variety of ways. The Education Department was initially planning to make waiver renewal contingent on whether or not states actually moved the needle on student outcomes.) But then they backed away from that plan.

To be sure, the department—and many state officials—view all of these departures from NCLB's outdated accountability system as common sense changes. In fact, states themselves asked the department for nearly everything on this list. 

But whether the ESEA rewrite passes before the end of the Obama administration, and whether Congress ultimately adds language bolstering accountability in its bill ... NCLB Classic-style accountability is a thing of the past.

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