Goodbye NCLB labels, hello ‘priority’ schools

On Board Online • February 27, 2012

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior writer

Under a requested waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), New York would toss out labels that pigeonhole schools as “persistently low achieving” or “in need of improvement.”

Instead, the State Education Department (SED) would designate struggling schools as “priority” or “focus” schools – terms that state education officials say signal the level and type of attention they will receive to foster improvement.

Schools successful enough to be considered potential models would be classified as “reward” schools.

“I would say the proposed nomenclature would be an improvement,” said NYSSBA President President Thomas Nespeca. “One of the issues we have had with NCLB is the punitive flavor of the labels.”

Members of the state Board of Regents approved submission of the NCLB waiver request on Feb. 13, capping some five months of work by the Education Department staff to craft a detailed alternative to the federal law. New York’s submission this month meets a Feb. 28 deadline for a second round of waiver requests.

The Obama Administration announced in September that states could seek exemptions from some of the strictures of the 2002 federal law, which was a signature initiative for President George W. Bush.

On Feb. 9, President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan named the first 10 states to receive NCLB waivers, based on their submission of their own educational reform plans. Those states are: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Since then, an 11th state, New Mexico, also has been approved.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. told the Regents this month that, if approved, New York’s plan will free schools from a rigid snapshot-style focus on test scores and allow educators to more effectively monitor and encourage student growth.

The law’s mandate that all students pass tests showing them to be proficient in math and reading by 2014 has been widely panned as unrealistic. While he called that goal “a worthy aspiration,” King said “it clearly is not one that New York or any state in the country is prepared to meet.”

And in New York, King said, “the fundamental idea behind the waiver is to move away from absolute performance to looking at student growth.”

New York’s plan replaces a model that labels schools either as high-performing or low-performing, based on test results, and that identifies some as needing improvement, corrective action and restructuring. The new three-level identification system includes:

Priority Schools. These would include schools now targeted for help using School Improvement Grants. Priority schools would be within the bottom 5 percent of public schools, based on measures including high school graduation rates persistently below 60 percent or low performance on English Language Arts and math tests.

Priority schools would be required to adopt rigorous whole-school reform programs.

Focus Schools. These would be determined in a two-stage process starting with identification of districts with lowest-performing subgroups, such as low-income students, racial or ethnic groups, students with disabilities or English language learners. Districts would then single out Focus Schools within the districts.

At least 10 percent of districts and 10 percent of charter schools would receive “Focus”  designation. In New York City, each community school district would be analyzed individually.

Focus districts would be required to take dramatic actions supporting the individual schools with particular student groups with problems.

Reward Schools. These schools would be recognized publicly for high performance on a variety of rigorous measures and would serve as models. They would be eligible for grants of up to $100,000, now funded through Race to the Top, and could seek expedited variances from certain regulations under the control of the education commissioner.

The department also may create another category, “Recognition Schools,” which could help bring in high-achieving rural schools that are too small to qualify as Reward Schools.

The federal waivers should not be viewed as giving states a pass on instituting reforms that enhance standards and accountability, Obama Administration officials have stressed.

Rather, they say, waivers are intended to give states flexibility to set higher and more-honest standards and free them from a law they say drives the wrong behaviors, such as “teaching to the test” and adhering to federally-determined strategies that don’t suit all students and schools.

NYSSBA applauded the Regents approval of the waiver request.

“The fact is, school districts can still be held accountable without having to face quixotic expectations such as requiring 100 percent student proficiency in math and English language arts by 2014,” said NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer.

“By gaining more flexibility from Washington, New York will be able to focus its attention and resources on its lowest performing schools while also rewarding its highest performing schools,” Kremer added. “Furthermore, by streamlining the use of federal funds, the state will be able to better assist those students most in need of help.”

New York’s approach should make it possible to better measure individual student improvement, SED officials Kenneth Slentz and Ira Schwartz said in their presentation to the Regents. The state would use data to compare students with similar test histories and within subgroups, such as those from low-income families, those with disabilities and English language learners.

Schwartz said the state would use student test histories to create a “growth percentile”  scoring system “that we can use to determine if students are on track to achieve over time.”

King described the growth measures as a supplement to “absolute performance” measures from tests; he said they would guide curriculum development and spending decisions to support the most meaningful tactics.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch praised the plan outlined in the waiver application, saying it affirms New York’s “progressive” approach to use student performance data to guide policy decisions.

“This is an area where New York has led the way,” Tisch said.

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