At-risk students may lose under NCLB waivers, civil rights groups say

August 27, 2013

States with waivers from No Child Left Behind may be letting schools off the hook from helping their most at-risk students, according to a report released Tuesday by the Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of civil rights organizations.

NCLB waivers give states flexibility from some of the most challenging requirements of the federal education law, including that 100 percent of students in Title I, or low-income, schools must be proficient in math and reading by the end of the current academic year. In exchange, the states agreed to implement a teacher evaluation process that is tied to student test scores.

Before waivers, schools that did not meet the annual target for student  proficiency rates for the entire school and student subgroups, such as low-income, English learners and ethnic and racial minorities, were placed on Program Improvement status and required to provide tutoring and other academic interventions.

An analysis by the campaign found that the District of Columbia and 41 states with federal waivers no longer require more than 2,000 of these former Program Improvement schools to intervene when at-risk students need help catching up.

Rufina Hernández, executive director of the campaign, said coalition members worry that this trend could weaken efforts supported by the U.S. Department of Education to close the academic achievement gap.

“For us, that is a civil rights question,” said Hernández during a phone call with reporters. “When it comes to protecting civil rights, our communities have always looked to the federal government for that protection.”

The analysis was conducted before eight districts in the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, received the only district waivers from NCLB to date. However, as part of its application to the federal government, CORE districts proposed increasing their accountability for students in subgroups.

Unite recently, California only required Title I schools to include subgroups if they represented at least 100 students. A school with 99 English learners, for example, would not have to include them as a subgroup in determining whether the school met its federal proficiency goals.

The CORE districts’ waivers require any subgroup with 20 or more students to be tracked.

Phillip Lovell with the Alliance for Excellent Education, one of the coalition members, said although civil rights groups are split on whether the district waivers were the right thing to do, they do see the stepped-up intervention for at-risk students as “generally speaking, something that is very positive.”

The report calls on the U.S. Department of Education to require states with waivers to modify their accountability plans to ensure that all at-risk students are identified and given the assistance they need to succeed in school.

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