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Waiver Watch: Deep in the Heart of Texas

Published:  March 11, 2013
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Photo by Flickr user Kodamakitty.

Texas has joined Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and 46 other states (including Washington, D.C.) in seeking waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With Nebraska and Montana sitting out, Vermont and North Dakota withdrawing, and California flat-out rejected, the pool of non-waiver states continues to shrink. But despite jumping on the waiver bandwagon, Texas breaks the mold in many respects.

Although the Lone Star State’s refusal to adopt the Common Core is one important distinction from other waiver winners, this wasn’t the detail I was most keen to uncover in their formal request. Texas’ plan to implement their own college- and career-ready standards and assessments actually stood out as one of the stronger points of their waiver, and other non-Common Core states, like Virginia and Minnesota, have successfully applied. Rather, Texas had originally considered asking the Department of Education for leeway to redesign the federal Title I funding formula – a provision that would have gone well beyond the flexibility granted to other states and a demand that would have undoubtedly made Texas’ waiver dead on arrival. To their credit, Texas officials removed this request, bringing their final proposal much closer to what the Department is offering.

But does this mean Texas’ waiver will be a hit with the U.S. Department of Education? Not so fast. While the proposal has strong points – like working with higher education to gain buy-in for college- and career-ready standards and articulating a plan to pilot teacher evaluations and scale them statewide – Texas’ proposed system of school accountability and improvement is not among them. In fact, Texas’ waiver could significantly undermine efforts to hold schools accountable for the performance of individual student subgroups.

Texas’ request is complicated by the fact that its state accountability system, which has operated in parallel to NCLB, is undergoing a significant overhaul, with many provisions yet to be finalized. Because Texas would like to fit its existing system into the waiver requirements, the state simply excluded these half-baked provisions from its request. Therefore, Texas’ waiver omits critical details, including how student progress will be measured, what annual performance targets will be, how each component within accountability will be weighted, and how focus and priority schools will be selected. Further, the application doesn’t even include Texas’ proposed framework, burying the information in attachments and hyperlinks.

For those that do seek out the information, Texas’ new performance index leaves a lot to be desired. Similar to other states, Texas plans to use a combination of four indices for accountability: student achievement, student progress, achievement gap closure, and postsecondary readiness. But the state does not specify how the index would translate into specific interventions, i.e. focus and priority schools.

Even more worrisome is how student subgroups and academic subjects will be treated across the four indices. While some states created “super-subgroups,” Texas took a different approach: ignore subgroups altogether.  Within the student achievement index, only the all students group is considered, with proficiency rates combined further across all subject areas. Yet for measuring student progress, subjects are considered separately and all traditional subgroups count– with the exception of low-income students, who are only considered within the performance gap closure index. But the gap closure measures do not consider English Language Learners or special education students. Finally, within the postsecondary readiness index, only racial subgroups are considered on one measure (advanced proficiency rates), while all subgroups (except low-income students) are considered for graduation rates. Texas does not provide a rationale for picking and choosing which indices apply to which subgroups.

Texas could also be plagued by an issue that cropped up in other waivers: annual performance targets. Texas’ targets would be based on the goal of cracking the top ten states nationally on college and career readiness by 2020 – a novel approach worth considering. But it’s unclear how the state could judge itself against others to define the annual targets. Texas is not a Common Core state, and existing national measures, like the SAT or ACT, would only apply to high schools. If the proposed readiness index were used instead, the ranking would be based on Texas assessments, students graduating with advanced Texas diplomas, and graduation rates. Using these measures, Texas would be number one by default – no other state has similar data.

Given these issues, I am doubtful that the Department could approve Texas’ request in its current form. There are simply too many unanswered questions and missing details. That said, Texas’ request is strong enough in other areas to allow for productive negotiations with the Department. With additional assurances and information from the Lone Star State, along with some give and take, NCLB flexibility could reach deep in the heart of Texas by the 2013-2014 school year.

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