Indiana

Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Will 'No Child' Waivers Leave Behind At-Risk Students?

Kyle Stokes/StateImpact Indiana

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks at a conference in Gary in September 2011. Duncan has proposed issuing waivers to states in the absence of Congressional action to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

Congressional Democrats and civil rights groups have been waving red flags over the Obama administration’s plans to waive key requirements of the No Child Left Behind act for states, and it looks like federal education officials have noticed.

They’re concerned the formal requests for “flexibility” Indiana and ten other states sent to the U.S. Department of Education don’t do enough to address the socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps the original NCLB law was meant to close.

Indiana Department of Education officials say the state’s waiver proposal does enough to hold schools accountable for making sure the most at-risk students make progress.

But in a letter to state superintendent Tony Bennett, the U.S. Department of Education listed the “inattention” to minorities and poor children as a “significant concern” with Indiana’s waiver plan.

NCLB’s Socioeconomic Subgroups

White students
African American students
Asian students
Native American students
Hispanic students
Limited English proficient students
Special education students
Students receiving free & reduced price lunch

The original ‘No Child’ law requires schools to consider the change in test scores among different “subgroups.” Every subgroup must make progress for the entire school to make “AYP,” or meet its “adequate yearly progress” goals.

Conversely, if just one subgroup fails to make AYP, the entire school doesn’t make AYP. It’s one of the reasons an overhaul of NCLB is widely popular.

Nine of the eleven waiver proposals, including Indiana’s, would do away with these subgroups, creating instead a “super-subgroup” that requires a school to ensure the bottom 25 percent of its students make progress.

“That captures the kids that we’re trying to close the achievement gap with,” Jon Gubera, the Indiana Department of Education’s Chief Accountability Officer, told StateImpact in October. “You can’t ignore them, you have to get them to progress. You also can’t ignore the rest of the student body. You can’t just focus on one group, you also need everyone to improve, so [Indiana's model] captures every kid.”

That approach isn’t playing well in some circles, especially among civil rights groups who consider the subgroups one of the best elements of the ‘No Child’ law. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Education amplifying those concerns:

We fear that putting students with disabilities, English language learners and minority students into one ‘super-subgroup’ will mask the individual needs of these distinct student subgroups and will prevent schools from tailoring interventions appropriately. Therefore, we urge you to consider each applicant’s subgroup performance measures as significant and coherent components of overall accountability and require applicants to articulate meaningful and effective interventions for schools that are low performing or have subgroups that fail to progress.

Federal officials also gave voice to this concern in their feedback on Indiana’s waiver proposal. They asked for clarification on why high growth in the “top 75 percent” of a school’s student body can make up for poor growth in the “super subgroup.” (Read the U.S. Department of Education’s letter at the bottom of the page.)

This response frustrates the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli, as he writes on EducationNext:

Everybody in Washington claims they favor more flexibility in federal education policy… Or so they say, until push comes to shove. And then many of the players discover that they don’t like flexibility after all. They want to change federal policy in theory but not in reality…

There’s a name for what Harkin and Miller are calling for: the Adequate Yearly Progress system. This is exactly what we’ve got now! So they seem to be saying: “We favor flexibility, as long as nothing really changes.”

Here’s the U.S. Department of Education letter in response to Indiana’s waiver proposal (read that in full here). The Associated Press initially obtained the letter:

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