The Bush administration has allowed the states some wiggle room to meet the sweeping federal No Child Left Behind education requirements, including tactics that may help schools avoid being dubbed "failing," education officials said.
With much fanfare, President Bush announced June 10 that all 50 states' "accountability" plans had won federal approval. These plans, which vary widely, describe how states will ensure that all students are proficient in math and English by 2013-2014.
"I think there was more flexibility [from the U.S. Department of Education] than I had been told several months ago to expect," Thomas Charles Horne, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction, told Stateline.org in an interview after the president's remarks.
Arizona was one of 17 states that saw their plans approved just hours before the president's announcement, bringing the count to 50. State education officials from around the country joined the president and Education Secretary Rod Paige for the announcement during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
The flurry of plan approvals in one day have some education experts speculating. "My hunch is that there are still going to be battles in some of these states," said Monty Neill, executive director of Fair Test, a left-leaning advocacy organization in Cambridge, Mass. He called the federal education law a "train wreck" that sets up schools to fail.
Some states also may need to work out details with their own legislatures and education departments before the plans are final, education experts said. Most plans appear online on the department's Web site.
"It makes sense to give states flexibility," said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, a nonpartisan group. "It would be unfortunate if the [U.S. Department of Education] compromises on core principles [of No Child Left Behind] and I don't think that they have."
Under the federal law, schools that don't meet annual goals for two years in a row are not making "adequately yearly progress." While the administration stresses these schools are not "failing" that is exactly how many describe these schools. Each state must release a list of schools that need improvement before the start of the school year, giving parents time to switch their children's schools.
The wide differences in state plans will make it hard to compare states' systems and their results, said Terri Schwartzbeck, policy analyst at the American Association of School Administrators, a trade group of K-12 administrators. "It's just impossible to make any national comparison ... because they are just all playing by different rules and to be quite honest, some states will be playing by harder rules than other states," she told Stateline.org.
Thomas Daniel Watkins, superintendent of public instruction in Michigan, said getting the state's accountable plan approved "was part of a negotiating dance and during the process we stepped on each other's toes." An area of particular concern to Michigan dealt with testing students who have limited English skills.
The federal law requires that states track how well students and schools are doing academically. But a school's overall "average" is not good enough. States have to look within schools and school districts to make sure African-American, Latino and other ethnic groups are all making the grade as well as low-income, students with disabilities and students with limited English skills.
"Testing children who just arrived in this country was not something of value," Watkins told Stateline.org. But during negotiations, the administration held firm. "I don't like stopping at stop signs, but I have to follow the law of the land and that was one area that the state had to back away," he said.
The U.S. Department of Education did give states leeway in figuring out just when a school is considered failing. Indiana, for instance, says that a school must miss meeting its goal in the same subject for consecutive years to be considered failing. So if a school meets its math goal but not English and the next year does the reverse, meeting its English but not math, then that school is NOT considered failing. Other states using this approach include Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York and Washington.
States also have flexibility in how they plan to reach the goal of having each school and each subgroup within that school "proficient" in math and English by the 2013-2014 school year.
Generally speaking, the plans lay out the percentage of students the state hopes will meet the state's standard for being proficient in math and English each year. States like Arkansas, New York and Washington hope to have the same amount of students improve each year so that by 2013 all students in all subgroups are proficient in both subjects.
Other states, such as Delaware, Indiana and Ohio, on the other hand, figure they need time to get their systems in place and are expecting more students to improve progress in the later years. The administration is allowing these states to stretch out their goals, an approach some have dubbed "back-loading." This will likely help states cut the number of schools on the failing list, at least in the short-term.
The administration also is allowing New York and Massachusetts to give schools credit for bringing up the test scores of students who had been failing but still aren't quite up to the "proficient" level and technically aren't making the grade. To determine whether a school has met its goals, New York and Massachusetts will look at not just the percentage of students in those schools who passed, but also how many failing students improved.
The law leaves it up to states to figure out how many students they need in a subgroup to be confident that states are getting good "statistically reliable" data on whether ALL students are making progress, including disabled, low-income and ethnic students. Here too the administration is giving states flexibility. In most states, that number is between 30 and 40, but it varies as low as five in Maryland and as high as 50 in West Virginia.
Georgia set on 40. "We thought that was a realistic number that statistically if you had a few students who were coming to America really ill-prepared, they weren't going to drag the whole group down. But it was significant enough number that it would make schools be serious about truly leaving no child behind," she told Stateline.org.
For Arizona, the main sticking point in its negotiations was to keep its own Arizona Learning accountability system while adhering to No Child Left Behind, Horne said The Bush administration agreed to allow the state to have two sets of labels. That means Arizona schools will get one of five marks from the state ranging from failing to excelling from the state and either a passing or failing grade under No Child Left Behind.
"States have invested a lot of political capital in their prior existing [education] plans," said Wiener of the Education Trust. He said it just makes sense to allow states to maintain those systems while meeting the federal education law requirements.