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Waiver Watch: Making Sense of Thirty-Five Shades of Grey

Published:  October 24, 2012
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Flickr photo by Downtown Traveler.

Ever since the first waivers were submitted last November, there has been an inherent dilemma in the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) flexibility plan: the tension between comprehension and precision in states’ accountability systems.

On one hand, NCLB set a goal so high – 100 percent proficiency by 2014 – that it became meaningless. And its blunt measure of school quality (student proficiency only) and prescriptive, top-down improvement activities (based on the number of years a school failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, regardless of why the school missed those targets) exposed the limitations of federal policy to identify and improve low-performing schools.

Yet despite its rudimentary measures, at least NCLB required states to create transparent accountability systems, full of black-and-white rules everyone understood: all students and student subgroups worked toward the same 100 percent goal, at the same pace, and all schools were subject to the same labels and interventions based on their success. 

But if school accountability under NCLB was black-and-white, then school accountability under waivers is thirty-five shades of grey. And just like the book, the public is struggling to understand the waiver phenomenon.

With flexibility, states could address their grievances with NCLB by developing school accountability systems that 1) measure quality more accurately based on proficiency, growth, and postsecondary readiness, 2) better identify low-performers through letter grades or other ratings, and 3) tailor specific interventions to schools’ needs.

However, this precision comes at a cost. As accountability systems become more nuanced, they become infinitely more complicated.  The waiver applications are hundreds of pages, and many of the new models states use, like individual student growth, are so technically complex that it takes an advanced statistics background to explain them fully.

Today’s accountability systems also include more information. Many states created a web of annual performance targets, school grades, and intervention levels that do not always overlap in predictable patterns, or at all. For example, a school in Ohio could simultaneously miss performance targets for Hispanic and low-income students, earn a “C” grade, and receive a “focus” label for low graduation rates. States will also continue to report all the school data required by NCLB, even if they no longer apply to its accountability system.

Summarizing the implications of each strand in this web to families, elected officials, and reporters could be a frustrating task for state education agencies. Which is more important, the federal “focus” label or the state’s “C” grade? Why wasn’t the school graded lower if several subgroups performed below expectations? Are the improvements needed for the school to earn a “B” next year the same as the improvements needed to exit “focus” status?

This level of nuance cannot be explained in a media soundbite. And that’s one reason why in Virginia, Florida, and elsewhere, public reactions to the state’s waiver-approved performance targets are threatening the legitimacy of the new system. It’s largely a problem of perception, not policy. Given a decade of setting equal targets for all students, it feels wrong to set lower targets for racial minorities and disadvantaged students, even if these groups are expected to make greater annual progress. As Education Week’s Michele McNeil rightly notes, states would be wise to highlight achievement gap closure rates, alongside the proficiency rates, to help explain the logic of the new goals.

It might seem trivial, but these details matter. And unfortunately, the details often get bungled in public discussions of waivers, exacerbating the confusion. A generation of parents, policymakers, and journalists has been trained to expect annual school ratings and use them to make decisions about school quality. Given these expectations, state education agencies need to be much more aggressive in sharing and selling their new accountability plans to legislators, the media, and the public. States’ next generation accountability systems may be more accurate and effective, but no one will care if they can’t understand the system in the first place. 


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