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Will NCLB Waivers Reverse Narrowing of the Curriculum?

The waiver plans some states have developed to gain relief from core provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act contain a dimension that may be of keen interest to those who worry that the federal law has narrowed the curriculum.

Seven of the 11 states propose to include tests in subjects beyond reading and mathematics as part of their reconfigured accountability systems, with the most popular being science assessments, but social studies and writing also are included in some cases.

These waiver plans are a very big deal, as they essentially rewrite the map for accountability in the No Child Left Behind era. Most readers are only too well aware that the federal law currently relies mainly on test scores in reading and mathematics to drive accountability.

For the big picture on the state waiver plans, check out this recent EdWeek story. In it, my colleague Michele McNeil explains that states seeking waivers from the U.S. Department of Education would "replace what is widely considered an outdated, but consistent, school accountability regime with a hodgepodge of complex school grading systems that are as diverse as the states themselves."

The very idea that states who win waivers will be permitted far greater leeway in how they approach school accountability could well have important implications for the curriculum. (In fact, they would have a lot of flexibility in both how they identify school as low performing and what consequences would kick in.) As we reported here just recently, most educators believe the strong emphasis on improving reading and math scores since the enactment of NCLB has meant less time and attention to science, social studies, the arts, and a variety of other subjects.

Seven of the 11 states who so far have applied for waivers (many more are expected to do so soon) say they would include assessments in one or more additional subjects as part of their revamped accountability systems. Of those, three states, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma would include assessments in writing, science, and social studies. (It's important to say here that in certain cases, these states may well have parallel state accountability systems in which such tests already are factored into making judgments on schools. I haven't done that analysis, but it would be interesting to see.)

Here's a rundown for all 11 states highlighting which, if any, additional assessments they will include in their accountability systems, as described in their waiver proposals. (This is based on an EdWeek analysis of those plans.)

• Colorado: Writing, Science, English language proficiency
• Florida: Writing, Science
• Georgia: Writing, Science, Social Studies, high school end-of-course exams
• Indiana: No additional subjects
• Kentucky: Writing, Science Social Studies
• Massachusetts: Science
• Minnesota: No additional subjects
• New Jersey: No additional subjects
• New Mexico: No additional subjects
• Oklahoma: Writing, Science, Social Studies
• Tennessee: Science

Of course, some key questions remain. First, will these states win the waivers? Second, if they do, to what extent will the use of these tests reflect a change from current practice under the state accountability system? How will other changes in how schools are gauged, beyond test scores, factor into accountability decisions? And how are these same states proposing to change the consequences for poor academic performance by schools? Ultimately, the big question is how will school districts, schools, and individual teachers respond to all these changes? Will it free them up to pursue a more "well-rounded" curriculum (to use the term Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often invokes)? Will other, perhaps unforseen, factors intrude?

I'll close with one other important dimension of this discussion on the curriculum. My co-blogger here, Catherine, just finished up a story on the intersection of the waivers with the common standards and assessments for English/language arts and math. In it, she notes that the states seeking waivers also must show that they have rigorous academic standards, a solid plan to transform standards into good instruction, and tests that ensure students are ready for college or good jobs. And one way they can achieve two out of those three is by embracing both the common standards (already adopted by 47 states plus the District of Columbia) and the common assessments now being developed by two state consortia.

But, as we all know, it's that tricky third prong, transforming standards into good instruction, that lies at the heart of this whole conversation about curriculum.

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