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NCLB Outrages

The Unraveling of No Child Left Behind: How Negotiated Changes Transform the Law

Ohanian Comment: Which is worse? That they change NCLB? Or that they don't? Was this law ever "legitimate?"

An Administration so strongly committed to the principles of a law it has consistently hailed as positive is now backing away from it by making compromises on many dimensions. The dangerously high levels of opposition at the state and local level will inevitably affect support for the law in Congress. In this situation, since Congress controls reauthorization, appropriations, and oversight, the law cannot be sustained as originally written.
--from the Foreword

By Gail L. Sunderman
Foreword by Gary Orfield

Executive Summary

Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) has made such extensive compromises in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) that the law’s legitimacy is in serious question. In response to growing state and local opposition to the law, political and professional criticisms of its requirements, and the increasing number of schools and districts identified for improvement, the administration has allowed a wide variety of changes in state accountability plans. These changes reflect a political strategy by the administration to respond to the growing state opposition to the law by providing relief from some of the law’s provisions and reducing, at least temporarily, the number of schools and districts identified for improvement. But they are also a concession by ED officials that NCLB is not working and have created a policy that has no consistent meaning across states.

This report documents the changes states have made to their accountability plans and examines how these policy shifts affect the meaning of accountability and who benefits (and loses) from the changes. We reviewed decision letters sent to all 50 states that outlined the changes approved by ED through December 2005. The intent of this report is to provide policymakers with information they can use to develop a systemic approach to correcting the flaws in NCLB by documenting the requirements that are difficult for states to implement and identifying areas where the law may not be working as intended. The report provides an easy to understand synopsis of the changes allowed by ED and state-by-state summaries of the amendments each state adopted.

Two-Fold Approach to Amending State Accountability Plans

During the first two years of NCLB, the administration strictly interpreted and enforced the NCLB requirements, rebuffing any attempt to introduce policies that would respond to the concerns raised about the law. This changed beginning in late 2003 and early 2004 when ED announced a series of new policies aimed at aspects of the law that were a source of dissatisfaction. This series of policy changes affected how the students with disabilities and Limited English Proficient (LEP) subgroups were counted for accountability purposes, changed how states could calculate participation rates, and relaxed the highly qualified teacher requirements.

The next major set of changes came in April 2005 when Secretary Spellings announced the “Raising Achievement: A New Path for No Child Left Behind” initiative. By this time, hopes that the political opposition to the law would subside with minor adjustments in policy were quelled. States continued to introduce legislation or resolutions during the 2005 legislative session that placed restrictions on the implementation of NCLB. This opposition cut across the political and ideological spectrum, with some of the strongest opposition coming from Republican states. This new initiative took a different approach than the initial rule changes. It required states to adhere to a set of core principles when requesting changes to their accountability plans. It was unclear, however, what would count as evidence or how ED would evaluate whether states met these principles.

At the same time, another process was taking place that produced “state initiated” policy changes. These changes to state accountability plans were negotiated on a state-by-state basis. There were no guidelines on the types of changes states could request, no information on how the requests would be judged, and no guarantees that changes approved in one state would be approved in another. The state initiated amendments were extensive and varied, and included amendments that changed how states determined adequate yearly progress (AYP), allowed states to set different targets for different subgroups, and increased the kinds of statistical techniques states could use when calculating AYP, among others. These behind-the-scene agreements further eroded consistency in how the law was being applied across states.

Implications of Changes

Since the number and kinds of changes that states have adopted are not uniform across states, with each state requesting its own configuration of amendments, accountability no longer has a common meaning across states or even within states. Accountability now depends on which subgroups are included in the system, how each state calculates adequate yearly progress, and which district, school, or subgroup benefit from the various changes states adopted. The allowable statistical techniques states have adopted add complexity to the NCLB accountability system by complicating the meaning of AYP and obscure the ability of states, districts, and schools to show improvements in student performance. Many of the changes simply reduced the number of schools and districts identified for improvement, but without requiring any educational improvement.

Additionally, there were clear winners and losers from the changes. Some of the changes, such as the change in the method used to identify districts for improvement, have compounded the flaws in the NCLB accountability provisions by making it harder for some districts, primarily those serving minorities, to make AYP. Others, such as the changes in the highly qualified teacher requirements benefit some regions of the country over others.

Because this process was politically motivated to respond to growing state opposition to the law, ED has not systemically addressed the underlying flaws in the law. These include the double counting of students in some subgroups for accountability purposes, the reliance on mean proficiency to determine AYP, arbitrary timelines for improving achievement and unrealistic achievement goals that have no connection to what can actually be achieved, a reliance on testing and sanctions to improve schools without corresponding attention to the resources or expertise schools need, and insufficient attention in the law to state capacity to turn around huge numbers of failing schools and districts. If these issues are debated and addressed, it will mean a major overhaul of NCLB and not just a tinkering at the edges in response to political pressure. To improve NCLB, policymakers need to reexamine the core assumptions that underlie NCLB and reevaluate the mechanisms used by NCLB to improve schools and student achievement. To restore legitimacy to the process, policymakers need to include educators, experts, community leaders, and civil rights groups in an open and honest debate about what is needed to reform schools and improve student achievement.

For the full report, go to the PDF file below.

— Gail L. Sunderman, Foreword, Gary Orfield
The Civil Rights Project


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