State seeking No Child Left Behind exemption again

February 3, 2015

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.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.

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.

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.

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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