Well. I’ll be. After reviewing the draft flexibility request posted on the ALSDE’s web site, and after being given 6 days within which to offer comment, it appears that a controversial way of gauging student achievement has been embraced by our top education officials: setting different performance targets/AMOs/expectations for a child based on which subgroup to which he belongs. [Remember that AMOs are Annual Measurable Objectives] The initial gaps between the groups are alarming.
The following are Alabama’s subgroups classifications: All Students, American Indian, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Black, Hispanic, White, Special Education, Poverty, English Learners and Multi-Race. The “Multi-Race” classification is new to Alabama with this proposal.
The plan was approved by our State Board of Education at a special called meeting held in Hoover City Schools on Thursday, August 30. The request will now be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) before the September 6 deadline.
While most would agree that something needed to be done about the accountability/Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), setting different expectations of achievement for different groups of children was an unexpected piece of the proposal (at least for me). Especially considering that the AMOs, heretofore referred to as “Attachment 27” was not made available to the public during the comment period.
Here are the Reading and Math AMOs from Attachment 27:
Notice the differing starting points. It is one thing to “own” the differences, it is another to carve them in stone as expectations and accountability measures. The final plan approved by the State Board states that these AMOs will be “reset…using 2013-14 as a new baseline year” (page 55 of the plan), so I suppose there is room for improvement, but that these numbers were at all acceptable to our top state education officials is worrisome, to say the least. What’s really disappointing/sad/frightening is that these numbers are most likely based on actual performance on tests and measures already in place.
The first question that pops into my mind is: Are children in special education seriously performing that low right now? And before you get into the “well, they’re in special education for a reason” thing, remember that a small percentage ofchildren in special education are classified as Intellectually Disabled (ID), meaning they have serious cognitive difficulties. In fact, here is the chart of children in special education and their classifications/labels (and remember that gifted students are in special education,too!):
Virginia already got into trouble with the USDOE for being vague on how it would set AMOs. Virginia’s original request for a waiver was met with a response of “we need more information” from the USDOE. When Virginia provided additional information, it became apparent that it had differing expectations for different groups of children. But even Virginia expected 33% of its children with disabilities to be proficient in math, where Alabama set the original baseline at an abysmal 15%. Yes, Alabama expects that only 15% of the children in special education will be proficient in math. And where Virginia originally failed to set a baseline for reading, but eventually set it at 59, Alabama extended that 15 to reading proficiency expectations as well.
And it’s not just children in special education that our education officials have differing expectations of, as evidenced in the image above from Attachment 27.
Here are the graduation rate targets from Attachment 27:
Virginia has done its best to explain to its school community that it does not have different expectations. Click to read their Frequently Asked Questions about AMOs, issued in August. From the document:
Does the Board of Education have lower expectations for some students based on race, ethnicity or other factors?
No. All students, regardless of race, ethnicity or family income must correctly answer the same number of items to earn a passing score on SOL tests in English, mathematics, science and history/social science. Likewise, all students must meet the same set of requirements to earn an Advanced Studies, Standard or other Board of Education-approved diploma.
OK. So while the expectation that students correctly answer the questions may be the same across certain subgroups (notice that Virginia didn’t actually specify students with disabilities, only those racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups), why not place the bar higher for these students in order to hold schools and their staffs accountable for these students’ inability to answer the questions correctly?
Here’s that question and answer:
Why are the AMOs for some student subgroups lower than those for other
The AMOs vary from subgroup to subgroup because the students in different subgroups performed at different levels on the 2011-2012 mathematics SOL [Standards of Learning, Virginia’s version of the ARMT] tests and the 2010-2011 SOL reading tests. The Board of Education used the actual pass rates of students in the lowest-achieving schools as starting points in setting annual reading and mathematics objectives for each subgroup. Each annual measurable objective provides a goal for improvement for students in these schools based on the current performance of students in the subgroup. While all schools must meet these annual objectives for raising achievement, the AMOs are designed for the specific purpose of improving learning and outcomes for students in Virginia’s lowest-performing schools.
Here is Virginia’s reaction to the AMO differences by subgroup. And it appears to be working. After public pressure, Virginia’s state superintendent agreed to revise the AMOs to reflect more aggressive goals. I wonder what the USDOE will say about Alabama’s 15% AMO. The Advocacy Institute put together a few states’ AMOs that have received waivers. Virginia’s is the lowest at 33 (however, I have been reminded that each state’s measures can be very different from the other, so it might not be comparing apples to apples to use other states AMOs for comparison).
But what about Alabama? Are these expectations going to be acceptable to Alabama’s families? Are they acceptable to you? Instinct tells me this is only the beginning of a discussion to be had about where Alabama’s students are academically, where they need to be, and how our public schools and school communities plan to get them there.
The Washington Post article makes it clear that USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan accepts the different levels of expectations for students, and indeed the Obama administration appears to have no problem with them, either. From the article:
The Obama administration has allowed states to set different goals for different groups of students, as long as the low-performing students are required to make greater rates of progress, so that the gap between struggling students and high-achieving students is cut in half over six years.
Alabama’s plan includes the following language: “AMOs will increase in annual equal increments toward a goal of reducing by half the percentage of students in the all students group and in each subgroup who are not proficient within six years.” The “annual equal increments” are not equal among subgroups but rather equal in the real number within each subgroup.
So let’s look at the gaps:
So the gaps are cut in half. That is a good thing. Unfortunately, I recall the great expectations of the original AYP calculations under NCLB and how those measures were supposed to raise all children’s achievement, and….well, we know how that turned out.
Let me be clear: while I have grave concerns about setting different levels of expected achievement among different subgroups of children, I do not have the expertise to argue pedagogically or scientifically why this may not a good thing. Psychologically and sociologically, though, I believe we are tip-toeing on thin ice to accept and write down on paper that some children achieve at higher levels than others and that the bar we are aiming for differs by who the child is. But you do have to own where you are in order to move forward. And perhaps that’s what this is all about.
And hey, on the positive side, state education officials are voluntarily reducing the “n-size” from 40 to 20. The “n-size” is how many children have to be in a subgroup before a school and/or district is held accountable for their progress. Lowering the n-size from 40 to 20 was unexpected and extremely satisfying (at least for me). How this will affect accountability is still a bit unclear as the full calculation of what means progress for a school is still being formulated.
The Education Trust, an advocacy group championing excellent education for all students, appears to accept this methodology as the way to aggressively improve achievement among subgroups (and thus children typically left behind). The EdTrust has a good history of knowing what it is talking about where achievement of subgroups of children is concerned. So perhaps there is something to this.
It may be that this is the best way to start this ball rolling. While I am conflicted, and certainly do not have the answer to the best way to do this, I do believe that collectively our school community is capable of digesting this information and formulating a solid response. And while the ALSDE gave us only 6 days in which to comment, and did not provide all of the information necessary to form an opinion, there is still time for discussion.
Yes, we are all very busy and yes, this information can be difficult to understand. But I encourage you to take the time to try and understand it so that we can all avoid the pitfalls that befell AYP under NCLB.
Here’s the link to the ALSDE’s page containing the plan and all of the attachments. As always, if I can answer any questions, please feel free to ask here or on our facebook page.
Look for further discussion about the Flexibility Waiver Request in future posts. Don’t forget to subscribe to e-mail updates: you’ll be notified when new information is posted!