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State Waiver Plans Expand Test Menu for Accountability

Test scores in reading and math may not have as much of a monopoly over school accountability anymore, based on the plans some states have put forward to win waivers under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That's the crux of a new EdWeek story I just wrapped up.

Of the 11 states to already gain a waiver, seven say they will factor achievement in extra subjects in revising their accountability systems. In a second round of waiver applications awaiting a final decision by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly a dozen states are looking to do the same.

Science is the most popular subject to add, followed by writing and social studies.

I first blogged about this issue in December, raising the question of whether it might help reverse a perceived narrowing of the curriculum many see as a consequence of NCLB's intensive focus on reading and math scores.

In my new story, drawing on interviews in a variety of states, including Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and Colorado, I take a closer look at what exactly these states are planning to do, and why.

To be sure, standardized tests will remain the driving force of school accountability under these plans (though some also call for taking into account other factors). And reading and math scores—the main criteria for making adequate yearly progress under NCLB—will still count for a lot and typically be weighted more heavily than results in other subjects.

In any case, I've heard from plenty of folks over time, especially science educators, who say that in a world where test scores really matter, it's preferable to have their subject be part of the mix.

As Kelly Price, the president of the Georgia Science Teachers Association, told me of Georgia's plan to factor science into its new school performance index: "We're excited about it because we notice that with [the NCLB law], the topics that got the priority of instruction were those that were tested and those whose tests had high stakes."

In fact, a recent informal survey conducted by the National Science Teachers Association found that of the roughly 600 teachers who replied, 63 percent said science should be factored into AYP.

One important point here is that, leaving federal policy aside, some states for years have factored one or more subjects beyond reading and math into separate state accountability systems. But, to my knowledge, nearly all states have focused exclusively on reading and math when it comes to determining whether schools make AYP. Through their waiver plans, these states are aiming to end the problem of having two sets of competing demands by creating a unified system, and one that would consistently count the same subjects.

A question to ponder is why most states have never before counted subjects like science or social studies under NCLB. After all, as it was explained to me, the federal law does not prohibit this. It simply doesn't require it. (And, in fact, the law did require science testing at three grade levels.)

One explanation may be that given long-standing reservations about the NCLB approach to accountability, most states simply had no interest in going beyond what the law explicitly mandated, especially if it meant possibly roping more schools into the federal statute's set of consequences for schools not making AYP. Now that the Feds are prepared to hand states a lot more leeway in designing accountability systems, states may feel more comfortable introducing more factors into the recipe.

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