After years of arguing against No Child Left Behind (NCLB), over forty states are now taking a different approach to improving their low-performing schools. Armed with waivers from the federal law, these states are using school accountability systems based on relative, rather than absolute, measures of performance. As a result, school accountability today is dramatically different than it was a few years ago.
Using data collected from over 20,000 schools in 16 states during the transition from NCLB to waivers, “It’s All Relative” finds that nearly 4,500, or 65 percent, of schools in NCLB improvement were eased from those interventions under waivers. In other words, two in three schools that were identified by NCLB as low-performing are not identified as a priority or focus school under states’ new accountability systems. Further, the schools identified by NCLB, but not waivers, were often in the most serious NCLB improvement phases. The untold story of waivers is that with little warning, hundreds of so-called ‘failing’ schools suddenly weren’t ‘failing’ anymore.
- In ten states, the majority of schools no longer identified had been in the first two years of improvement (DE, IN, MN, MS, MO, NJ, OK, OR, TN, VA). But in five states, at least half of the schools eased from interventions were previously in corrective action or restructuring (AZ, MA, NV, RI, SC).
- Over half of schools previously in restructuring (those that had missed their performance targets for six consecutive years) were not identified for a seventh year of improvement in 2012–13. The same is true for over half of schools previously in corrective action (those that had missed their targets for four or five years).
The primary reason behind these changes is not additional performance measures, or complicated school grading systems in states, but rather the new federal approach for identifying the worst schools. With NCLB, schools in improvement fell short of a pre-determined performance standard: Adequate Yearly Progress. With waivers, however, the “standard” is the number of schools that must be identified—at least 15 percent of Title I schools must become priority or focus schools. Since states felt that NCLB forced them to name too many schools for improvement, many used this new approach to identify fewer schools.
- Eleven states classified fewer priority or focus schools in 2012–13 than the number of schools identified for NCLB improvement in 2011 – 12 (AZ, DE, FL, MA, MN, MO, NV, NJ, RI, SC, VA).
- This decrease is much larger in some states than in others. Using its waiver, Nevada identified over 85 percent fewer schools for interventions than it did the previous year, while Rhode Island identified 12 percent fewer schools from NCLB to waivers.
- In five states, however, the number of schools identified for improvement reaches an all-time high under waivers (IN, MS, OK, OR, TN). But these states tended to have relatively smaller school improvement efforts under NCLB.
The degree of change in the number of schools identified during the transition to waiver accountability systems may show significant variance from state to state, but all states are moving toward the same target: 15 percent. Under NCLB, it was much easier to make AYP in some states than in others. These distinctions matter less with waivers. Take the case of Mississippi and Massachusetts: In the 2011–12 school year, approximately 12 percent of Mississippi’s Title I schools were in some stage of improvement, compared to over 70 percent of Title I schools in Massachusetts. In the transition to waivers, this variation has all but disappeared: every state analyzed has identified 15 percent of Title I schools as priority or focus, give or take a few percentage points.
The 15 percent accountability strategy creates a finite number of school improvement slots. At the same time, however, states were given flexibility to measure school performance differently, changing how they viewed a school’s relative success and allowing them to identify different schools. While it may be too soon to tell if 15 percent is the ‘right’ number or if states have chosen the ‘right’ performance measures, landing in the bottom 15 percent matters for schools, teachers, students, and families, and it matters now. That's because the stakes for identifying the ‘right’ schools are higher than ever: school interventions under waivers are more focused and rigorous.
But little is known about waiver implementation and its effect on schools and student learning. “It’s All Relative” recommends an ambitious federal and state research agenda for waiver implementation, especially as the U.S. Department of Education begins to renew states’ waivers during the 2013–14 school year. The only way to determine if waivers are improving school, educator, and student performance is to gather evidence, carefully and systematically, on what is happening and why—and make changes if needed.
With waivers, states have the opportunity to rethink how they identify and improve their lowest-performing schools. And while waivers are clearly complicated, so was NCLB. The problem with No Child Left Behind wasn’t that it was complicated, however. The problem was that the measures and methods it used to identify low-performing schools weren’t very good ones. And its interventions to improve “failing” schools weren’t very effective. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear if states and the U.S. Department of Education have learned these lessons and applied them to waiver accountability systems.