Let’s face it. Schools and education officials never liked AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). The pass/fail method placed what many believed was an unfair label on schools who failed to meet the benchmarks set under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As we inched toward the “100% proficient” standard set to be attained in the 2013-2014 school year, and with Congress unwilling to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as NCLB, something had to be done to stop the increase in the number of schools failing to meet that 100% standard.
And so it was. In September 2011, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that states would be given an opportunity to be freed from the 100% proficiency standard as long as they promised to do three things:
- Adopt college- and career-ready standards for all students,
- Develop differentiated accountability systems, and
- Undertake reforms to support effective classroom instruction and school leadership.
States were given three windows of opportunity: November 2011, February 2012, and September 2012. All but six states submitted a flexibility waiver request. 34 (33 states plus D.C.) departments of education have been granted waivers to date. Alabama chose the “third window” of opportunity to submit our waiver. Here’s a map from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) web site (if you visit the link, the map is interactive):
One correction to the map above: Vermont withdrew its request.
The Alabama Department of Education (ALSDE) submitted a flexibility waiver request (“waiver”) on September 6, 2012. The waiver outlined the way the ALSDE intends to measure achievement and hold schools accountable for the achievement of schoolchildren….the alternative to AYP. The public was given an opportunity for comment from August 15 to August 21, 2012, although that version was missing some very important information (more on that here).
Bice and department heads presented the waiver in detail to the board at their August 23rd work session. I wrote up their presentation in great detail in this blog post. If you have the time, and really want to understand the waiver, you should watch the video of the work session.
This waiver will substantially change the way schools are “graded” for their performance regarding student achievement. AYP will be gone. These accountability provisions are the guts of the waiver. So how will schools be held accountable for progress under the proposed waiver? What is the alternative to AYP?
Testing and Assessment Changes
If you’ve been following along, you know that Alabama Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice has been granted approval to implement Plan 2020 for Alabama’s schoolchildren. Among the many reforms in Plan 2020, the ALSDE has completely changed the series of achievement measures that will be given to students, beginning this year with end-of-course tests for high school students. Click to enlarge the image below for a complete timeline of implementation of the new assessments.
Exactly how these assessments will figure into the accountability measures that Bice and the state board have proposed in the waiver request remains to be seen.
At a forum for families of children in special education held in September, Bice stated, “not every answer has been determined. This is a year of ‘we’re not gonna worry about AYP, we’re gonna meet the needs of children, we’re gonna teach to the standard’. And figure out together through this year what this new assessment and accountability system needs to look like.”
All we have to judge the new accountability system on, then, is what’s been written and submitted to the USDOE in this waiver and in the words spoken at recent state board work sessions and meetings.
Here’s what has been released so far. Note the “School Performance Index”:
The School Performance Index (SPI)
The SPI is the ultimate accountability measure for schools. From the waiver: “This single School/District Performance Index will be the trigger for recognition and support for schools and districts” (p.39). Simply stated, the SPI replaces AYP. There will be no pass/fail, but rather a grade of A through F based only in part on the achievement gains and achievement gap represented by the SPI. Here is the graphic view of the SPI:
About the A through F grading system: The grading system was mandated by law under Act 2012-402. A plan must be in place by December 31, 2012 (waiting for details), and the grading system will be implemented in phases:
So instead of AYP, we have A through F. And while AYP was comprised solely of proficiency measures (whether students met achievement benchmarks, known as Annual Measurable Objectives, or AMOs), the grading system uses multiple components.
A District Performance Index will also be calculated. Schools and districts will be eligible for assistance and intervention from the ALSDE based on the grades and indices that place them either as a priority or focus school and/or district. That detail is contained in the waiver, beginning on page 57.
The Achievement Component
Let’s focus on the achievement component. The achievement component is based on newly-revised AMOs, which are now based on which subgroup a student belongs to:
- American Indian
- Asian/Pacific Islanders
- Special Education
- English Learners
For comparison, here are the AMOs that Alabama has been using (you’ll recall that Alabama received permission to freeze AMOs for the 2011-2012 school year at 2010-2011 levels):
Not sure you can compare apples to oranges, as these two proposed series of AMOs differ greatly.
While many of the waiver requests submitted by states have set AMOs by subgroup, there is a rising tide of opinion concerned about setting different performance expectations based on demographic characteristics or disability status, with some worried that this embodies the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Bice has yet to be called to justify this choice, as no one in the media or otherwise has asked him to justify this wide discrepancy in AMOs.
Alabama has the dubious honor of having set the lowest AMOs for students in special education of any state submitting AMOs broken down by subgroup. (Working now to compile all AMOs submitted by other states. Hope to post soon.)
Bice appears to believe that emphasizing growth is the way to ensure that all students move forward. When speaking about the growth component in the new accountability system at the July work session of the state board, Bice said,
“If you look, and I’ve shared this with you before, over the last decade we’ve done an extremely good job of getting the students that were below the cut score up to the cut score, but if you look, we’ve looked at the last seven years of students who seven years ago started far above the cut score, we’ve actually seen their achievement potential digress. So in a growth model, this now will require us to keep the entire herd moving northeast rather than just the people below the cut score . So growth sets up (a) whole new expectation that we’re moving all students forward.” (emphasis added)
The italicized portion of his remark is what concerns me. If teachers in Alabama have a history of getting students to the benchmark, and then basically re-focusing their attention on students who are not at the benchmark, then setting these AMOs so low to begin with for some groups is deeply worrisome. What types of supports will be put in place to ensure that teachers and principals do not focus solely on the “cut score” or benchmark/AMO, but rather moving the “entire herd” northeast toward higher achievement? This is a mindset that must be changed among education officials in Alabama’s schools.
Measuring growth and holding schools accountable for growth sounds like a good way to ensure the whole herd moves northeast, but the details of how those measurements will be calculated and used has yet to be released.
More Unknowns for Achievement and AMOs
In the August work session, it was stated that each school would have its own set of AMOs. Additionally, in the waiver (pp. 55-56), it is stated that baselines for AMOs and targets will be reset in 2013-2014 based on the new tests. The goal will still be the same: 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. Because we don’t have actual numbers, this is another area where we have to wait and see what the calculations and final numbers end up looking like.
Graduation Rate Achievement Targets
Here are the targets set by the ALSDE:
Because the method by which graduation rates are calculated was recently adopted nationwide, these are not expected to change. Note the range of graduation rates among the subgroups. Alabama again has the dubious honor of currently having the second highest gap (behind Mississippi) between students in special education and all students (anyone noticing a pattern with students in special education in Alabama?).
The Gap Component – How It’s Measured and What It Means
No one denies that the achievement gap plagues Alabama’s and the nation’s schoolchildren. A quick look at the AMOs and graduation rates mentioned previously clearly highlights the achievement gap in Alabama. Here is Bice’s one-minute video explanation of gap and how the new way gap will be measured differs from the current accountability system.
Here’s the explanation from the waiver, p. 42 (interpretation after the quote):
Gap uses the same student test results as those included under achievement. The distance from that goal or gap is measured by creating a Student Gap Group―an aggregate count of student groups that have historically had achievement gaps. Student groups combined into the Student Gap Group include ethnicity/race (African American, Hispanic, Native American), special education, poverty (free/reduced-price meals) and limited English proficiency that score at proficient or higher. The percent of students performing proficient or above in the Gap Group is reported annually for each content area.
To calculate the combined student Gap Group, students who score proficient or higher and are in the student groups would be summed. No individual student counts more than one time and all students belonging to included groups are counted once. The N-count is based on total school population, not grade-by-grade enrollment, thus causing almost every school in Alabama to have a focus on Gap Groups. By measuring progress and performance for the Student Gap Group rather than considering each of the five groups individually, we are able to hold more schools accountable for necessary progress in these high needs areas. Disaggregated subgroups will still be reported individually. The N-count used will be 20.
What this says is that instead of individual achievement gap accountability (all students compared to only students in poverty, for example), the subgroups that have persistent gaps will be grouped together for this measurement. This, according to the Education Trust (who had the idea to “halve the gap” in the first place), could “end up recreating the problem that subgroup disaggregation was meant to address in the first place — that averages can hide more than they reveal”.
Because we do not have actual calculations the ALSDE intends to use, this is another area about which we must remain vigilant.
Alternative View of the Waivers
Here is a big picture look at the ESEA waivers. Candace Cortiella of The Advocacy Institute has become an expert on the waivers, particularly where students with disabilities are concerned. Cortiella believes that rather than strengthen the provisions under NCLB, the waivers have instead:
- suffered a lack of involvement in development of the accountability provisions by stakeholder groups (which was required by the USDOE),
- resulted in less accountability for subgroups of whom NCLB helped to expose achievement gaps,
- lowered expectations for students in those subgroups, and
- provided for fewer interventions in schools that struggle to deliver an excellent education.
What To Do Now – Many Unanswered Questions
We must keep a careful watch on the response the USDOE gives to Alabama education officials. A response is expected in the next month or so. The USDOE could approve the waiver request as written or give feedback to the ALSDE requiring more work on the waiver request.
While no advocacy group has formally questioned the AMOs that were set for Alabama’s students, talk of a challenge is afoot. The best thing we can do now is to spread information like this post far and wide, as no large media outlet (that I can find, anyway) in Alabama has written anything other than a cursory, big-picture article about Alabama’s waiver.
There are many questions left to be answered about the calculations and what weight will be given to achievement, growth, and gap. These are the guts and the heart of the accountability system.
The devil is in the details. Trust, but verify. Good advice to follow in this case. There are a lot of details in Alabama’s waiver that have yet to be revealed. Stay tuned.