Credit: John Fensterwald/EdSource Today

Duncan discussed a possible exemption from the No Child Left Behind law during an interview in Sunnyvale in May 2013.

Note: This article was updated on May 21, 2015. For the second straight year, California will ask the federal government to exempt it from using scores on the new assessments that students will take this spring to measure progress in math and English language arts, a key requirement under the No Child Left Behind law. (Update: The state received the exemption it requested in a May 19 letter from Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle. The letter listed six conditions with the one-year waiver.)

The California Department of Education is hoping that the request, which the State Board of Education approved last month, will be granted without the conflict that ensnared California and the U.S. Department of Education a year ago. At that time, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal funding during a dispute over which tests to give students and which measurements to use. State education officials expect to submit their proposed alternative plan to show student progress (laid out in Item 2 of the Jan. 13 state board meeting) sometime this month.

At issue in the request is what data, other than test scores, the state’s districts can use to nominally satisfy the law’s centerpiece provision: the requirement that all students in grades 3 through 8 be tested yearly and at least one time in high school and show progress in math and English language arts.

Under the law, students in all schools are tested, but the only schools and districts subject to penalties are those that receive federal Title I funding, awarded to schools with large numbers of low-income students. Title I schools and districts that fail to reach academic targets must inform parents that their children can transfer to a higher-scoring school and must spend a fifth of their Title I money on outside tutors. 

Even some of NCLB’s architects, such as Sandy Kress, an adviser to President George W. Bush, now acknowledge that requiring 100 percent proficiency was an aspirational goal that should have been reset by 2007, had Congress reauthorized the law on time.

NCLB requires that each year, increasing percentages of students at a school and a district score at a proficient level on state tests. Under the law, base percentages were set for 2002, the year NCLB took effect, then increased each year until reaching 100 percent proficiency last year. That meant that starting last year, a Title I school – with some exceptions – faced sanctions unless all its children scored proficient in math and English language arts.

Even some of NCLB’s architects, such as Sandy Kress, an adviser to President George W. Bush, now acknowledge that requiring 100 percent proficiency was an aspirational goal that should have been reset by 2007, had Congress reauthorized the law on time. But for nearly a decade, Democrats and Republicans have remained at loggerheads over what should replace it, so the law has remained largely intact. Last month on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats resumed vigorously debating various proposals laying out the successor to NCLB. Last month, speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Duncan gave 50-50 odds that a Republican-controlled Congress could pass a bill that President Barack Obama would sign.

In California, about 90 percent of Title I elementary and middle schools and 84 percent of high schools are already deemed in need of “Program Improvement,” the status for failing to make NCLB’s annual proficiency targets two years in a row. Many schools have been in Program Improvement for years. The remaining schools are in danger of joining them.

Most states no longer have to worry about the Program Improvement provision, however. Duncan has granted 43 states and seven California districts temporary waivers from NCLB’s sanctions and given them the ability to create alternative school accountability plans. Known as the CORE districts, the California seven include three of the state’s largest unified districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno. Two states have had their waivers revoked and seven didn’t apply for one. California declined to pursue a waiver in part because Gov. Jerry Brown opposed one of the Obama administration’s requirements: that the accountability plans include using student scores on standardized tests in evaluating teachers.

Battle over testing last year

California also clashed with federal officials last year when it discontinued the standardized tests in math and English language arts students have been taking for more than a decade. Instead, schools administered a “field,” or practice, test for the Smarter Balanced assessments, aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said it was more important to give districts a trial run with new online Smarter Balanced assessments than test students under the outdated state academic standards. Duncan initially disagreed and threatened to withhold Title I funds  – he never said exactly how much – but backed down. He gave elementary and middle schools a one-year reprieve from Program Improvement and said that high schools could use graduation rates and results from the high school exit exam as measures of yearly progress.

Now state education officials are asking for another year of grace for technical and policy reasons. The California Education Code prohibits comparing results of the previous standardized tests with the scores on the new Smarter Balanced tests in the Common Core that students will take this spring. As a result, the California Department of Education argues, it’s impossible to measure Adequate Yearly Progress under the NCLB law.

The state’s high school exit exam is only 25 percent aligned with the Common Core standards, so that’s another reason it is no longer a valid measure of achievement, Keric Ashley, interim deputy state superintendent of public instruction, said in an email. The State Board of Education hasn’t yet determined how to replace the exit exam.

In place of using student test scores, the state Department of Education wants federal officials to permit California districts to use high school graduation rates and the participation rates of students in this spring’s 11thgrade Smarter Balanced tests as measures of Adequate Yearly Progress in high schools. Progress in elementary and middle schools would be based on students’ attendance and their participation rate in the Smarter Balanced tests.

State officials are characterizing the changes they are requesting as technical amendments to an existing plan. If their request is granted, student scores on Smarter Balanced assessments this year would be reported to the U.S. Department of Education, as they will be to parents and schools in California, but would not be used to measure whether a school or district has made Adequate Yearly Progress.

Torlakson and other California officials are counting on Duncan to recognize that a successful Common Core rollout, as opposed to adherence to NCLB rules, should be the priority.

“We want to say (to federal officials), ‘Look, because of the transition (to Common Core), we need elbow room, and there is no way to measure progress from last year to this year, so (let us) use participation rates (in the test) as the yardstick,’” Chief Deputy State Superintendent Richard Zeiger said.

The state board approved the proposed changes earlier this month. Jenny Singh, administrator of the Academic Accountability Unit of the California Department of Education, said the department had discussed the proposal with federal officials but got no indication of when or if it would be approved.

Torlakson and the state board consider the requirements of NCLB a sideshow to the higher priority this year to create a more relevant and useful state accountability system. “We have not focused on AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) as a crucial level of accountability. It’s not a structure we want to get into” in creating a state system, said Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education.


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  1. SD Parent 2 years ago2 years ago

    While the state recognizes that it has no realistic way to assess AYP for the mandates under NCLB (which I agree are impossible to attain--no school reaches 100% profiency), it apparently seems to miss the point that the same standardized tests--or lack/change thereof--are supposed to be used to measure student achievement under the SPSA and the achievement gaps under LCFF. The disconnect between standardized testing and LCFF is either a case of left hand … Read More

    While the state recognizes that it has no realistic way to assess AYP for the mandates under NCLB (which I agree are impossible to attain–no school reaches 100% profiency), it apparently seems to miss the point that the same standardized tests–or lack/change thereof–are supposed to be used to measure student achievement under the SPSA and the achievement gaps under LCFF. The disconnect between standardized testing and LCFF is either a case of left hand not knowing (caring?) what the right was doing or a complete failure on the part of the state to meet the needs of their own mandates under SPSA and LCFF. Meanwhile, schools and districts go through the charade of creating SPSAs and LCAPs, respectively, with no continuity to measure student achievement.
    While the teachers, districts, and the folks in Sacramento all have the luxury of five years (as Michael Kirst likes to say) to figure things out with Common Core and the new wave of standardized tests, what about the 6+ million students in school right now? Does anyone care what is happening to them?

    Replies

    • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

      I don’t understand your point about a disconnect.

      • ann 2 years ago2 years ago

        5 years without accountability while giving districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to address achievement gaps….seems pretty disconnected to me.

  2. el 2 years ago2 years ago

    The reason it applies only to Title 1 schools is of course technical, because the federal government has no sway over schools that don't take its money. But it's pretty ironic that schools with a wealthy student population are exempt from what is obviously an impossible mandate. Duncan's own department has called this rule counterproductive and bureaucratic, but he's not above using it as a sledgehammer to implement policies that make him feel good about himself … Read More

    The reason it applies only to Title 1 schools is of course technical, because the federal government has no sway over schools that don’t take its money. But it’s pretty ironic that schools with a wealthy student population are exempt from what is obviously an impossible mandate.

    Duncan’s own department has called this rule counterproductive and bureaucratic, but he’s not above using it as a sledgehammer to implement policies that make him feel good about himself (regardless of whether they actually work or have worked).

    The obvious next move by the state in this game of adult egos should be to reset the proficient cut score to the level of random guessing, so that schools still get data with raw scores but can do what they need to do to educate the kids in their care. I have yet to see or hear of any case where “Program Improvement” actually made a positive difference; I have heard some horror stories. Maybe that’s what Duncan should focus on in this next year – figuring out how to improve Program Improvement so it actually Improves the program.

    Replies

    • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

      El, the exemption requested applies to all schools, not only T1 schools for obvious reasons – you cannot identify which school are failing if you don’t test them all. That’s not to say that I agree with PI and NCLB at all.

      • navigio 2 years ago2 years ago

        A non-T1 school can never be in PI. It does not need an exemption from that provision.
        You cannot identify which schools are failing if you simply label them all failing, independent of what method you use.

        • TheMorrigan 2 years ago2 years ago

          navigio is correct. However, a district (LEA) that has some non-title 1 schools but receives title-1 monies from its title-1 schools can be placed in PI.

          • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

            Read the first sentence of the article. The exemption requested is for the state at large. You cannot exempt only certain schools, however CORE districts have been given an exemption in an unusual state bypass by the DOE. Of course, it really only effectively applies to those schools currently in PI or those that could be enter PI w/o an exemption.

            • TheMorrigan 2 years ago2 years ago

              Yes, Don, for ALL title-1 schools under the state umbrella. Non-title 1 schools need not worry whether or not the waiver is accepted or not.

            • navigio 2 years ago2 years ago

              Read the rest of the article. As well as what el wrote that you responded to. The exception being referred to was PI status, and the resulting lack of consequences for non-title I schools. The exemption requested by CDE was more than that (though with the lack of consequences being the tangible reason, at least at the school level for this year. Last year I think it included reporting results).

            • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

              Schools can enter and exist T1 designation and PI. At any given time we may be only talking about a certain set of schools, but those schools are part of the evolving schools statewide. The exemption request doesn't ask for certain schools, but rather statewide, CORE excepted as they are already exempted. Note that all CORE district schools are exempted, whether they are currently in PI or whether they are or could be newly … Read More

              Schools can enter and exist T1 designation and PI. At any given time we may be only talking about a certain set of schools, but those schools are part of the evolving schools statewide. The exemption request doesn’t ask for certain schools, but rather statewide, CORE excepted as they are already exempted. Note that all CORE district schools are exempted, whether they are currently in PI or whether they are or could be newly designated in PI. Same with statewide. Call it a technical distinction if you will, but if the state exempts fines for red light runners anyone who runs a red light wouldn’t have to pay the fine, though only those who do run a red light will actually benefit.

  3. Paul Muench 2 years ago2 years ago

    I forget, if a school is placed in program improvement does that school’s students get to transfer to their school of choice within the district? If so, does the story change if all schools in the district are in program improvement? I’m wondering if changing the proficiency quota for a school could provide new opportunities for students to transfer schools.

    Replies

    • navigio 2 years ago2 years ago

      The 'right' to transfer is only to another non-PI school, so yes, anything that changes the status of schools impacts that feature. Note however that all schools will be in PI now (except those that got waivers, and those that are not title I). In addition, most non-PI schools are already fully attended, and the right to transfer is contingent on space, so in reality there is not a lot of real opportunity to transfer … Read More

      The ‘right’ to transfer is only to another non-PI school, so yes, anything that changes the status of schools impacts that feature. Note however that all schools will be in PI now (except those that got waivers, and those that are not title I). In addition, most non-PI schools are already fully attended, and the right to transfer is contingent on space, so in reality there is not a lot of real opportunity to transfer as a result of this aspect of the law.

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