Ever since the Department of Education (ED) released guidance on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waivers, policymakers have debated the merits and problems surrounding the new accountability systems that states proposed. The waivers, if ED approves them, allow states to replace the accountability system Congress put in place under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – Adequate Yearly Progress – with their own rules. ED just released letters from their peer reviewers to each of the 27 states that submitted waiver applications in the second round. After comparing these letters to the first round of approved waivers, it looks like ED is not holding states to the reviewers’ recommendations.
Thanks to EdWeek, 13 of these letters are publicly available. Among the many shortcomings the reviewers identified, states’ treatment of student subgroups (students with disabilities, English language learners, minority students, and students living in poverty) in their school accountability grades featured prominently in the letters. It is not surprising that the reviewers were concerned about the treatment of subgroups in the waivers – many stakeholders have expressed similar concerns. Indeed, even the Department of Education’s guidance on how it will evaluate ESEA waiver applications explicitly requires states to address subgroup achievement. Has ED changed its tune after recognizing the challenges this created for the majority of schools?
For example, reviewers dinged Kansas’ waiver application for proposing to measure the achievement gap by comparing the performance of the top- and bottom-performing 30 percent of students instead of separating out student subgroups. Kansas also proposed using alternative assessments for subgroups and failed to demonstrate how they would collect data on individual subgroups over time to identify trends. The reviewers concluded that as it stands, the state’s new accountability framework could potentially mask the performance of struggling subgroups.
This is not the first time that reviewers have been concerned about subgroups. We recently examined three state waivers—from Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico—approved in the first round of waiver applications. ED approved Florida’s and New Mexico’s applications even though their school grade frameworks did not include the achievement of individual subgroups.
From our read of Florida’s original waiver application and the reviewer feedback on the proposal, reviewers criticized Florida’s application because, like Kansas, the state did not include individual subgroup achievement in school grades. Specifically, Florida’s plan ditches traditional ESEA subgroups and instead accounts for the performance of the 25 percent of students with the least test score growth from year to year, assuming that this 25 percent captures most of the students in these subgroups.
Florida’s response to the comments? Not much. Florida did concede by adding that they would use school improvement plans to intervene in schools in which any subgroup of students failed to meet the state’s achievement goals for two years in a row. But as far as we can tell, Florida made no changes to its school grade system in its approved waiver plan. Instead, Florida justified its use of the lowest-performing 25 percent of students by claiming that many schools did not have enough students in each subgroup to be properly measured under NCLB’s accountability system.
So the real question is—is ED taking the reviewers’ feedback about subgroups seriously? In the case of Florida, the Department approved the waiver even though the state made no substantive changes to its inclusion of subgroups in school grades. Will ED take a firmer hand with this second round of waivers? Or will states be allowed to obscure the performance of their neediest students in their school accountability grades?