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NCLB Outrages

Nebraska Department of Education

Ohanian Comment: Every professional organization in the land should write a letter of support to Nebraska. Our profession is at stake here.

Since I know how long it takes professional organizations to react to anything important, I urge individuals to send letters of support. When someone stands up to oppression, we should at the very least say 'thank you.'

Doug Christensen, Commissioner
Nebraska Department of Education
301 Centennial Mall South
P. O. Box 94987
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509-4987

But don't let your professional organizations off the hook: Their silence on NCLB is a disgrace.

I had to retype the memo, so any typos you spot are mine and not the Commissioner's.


TO: All Nebraskans

FROM: Doug Christensen, Ph.D.
Commissioner of Education

RE: Statement of The Commissioner of Education Regarding State's Assessment System And Its Compliance With The Requirements Of NCLB

DATE: July 5, 2006

Today, we received word that our state assessment system, STARS, does not, at this time, meet the federal requirements for compliance with No Child Left Behind. According to the United States Department of Education (USDE), there are numerous criteria which Nebraska will have to meet in order to be approved. The USDE letter is posted on the Nebraska website or on the
USDE website

We have 20 days in which to challenge the findings, request a formal review of our concerns and submit additional data. We will challenge the findings. We have invested too much time, energy, expertise and resources to back away now. This decision by USDE is not labeling our system "rejected" or "failed." It is a statement of the work to be done to provide evidence that our system is valid, reliable and fair and that our system is in compliance with NCLB.

I am disappointed by the federal decision and disappointed by the way we have been treated by them. In fact, I cannot recall a professional issue in my over 40 years as an educator over which I have been so disappointed. This is not the way a partnership is run and not a way for anyone to be treated. If we treated our schools in a one-sided and mean-spirited way, we would be out of business. We would not even consider being so arbitrary and/or heavy-handed.

We feel blind-sided by the decision of the U. S. Department of Education. First, the decision is a blatant violation of the "partnership" around which this work was to be created and documented. Second, it is a violation of the process that was to be fair, open, and evidence-based. Third, it is a violation of past agreements reached. And fourth, it is a violation of the law itself.

First, the partnership, as claimed by USDE, was to provide the basis on which each state would be treated individually so that each state could "negotiate a way to yes." Each state was to be reviewed separately to reflect each state's unique context and policy environment.

The current partnership has flat-out rejected our request to fulfill an earlier agreement to produce a list of the concerns and issues and meet face-to-face before a decision was made. This partnership is about one partner that contributes less than 9% of the funding but leverages 100% of the accountability.

Second, the process of reviewing each state's plan was to use "peer reviews" which in our case were neither "peer-based" nor "reviews." The teams sent to our state did not reflect local knowledge of our policy or eductional context of the state. Further, the team did not represent individuals with expertise in local assessments. And, in the words of a peer reviewer, the teams were advised in their training to be as "nit picky" as possible.

The peer review process required the teams to review all of the documentation of each state. Nebrasks provided 6 large boxes of data and documentation. The documentation could not have been reviewed in its entirety. In fact, it appears that it was searched by the peer team for reasons to reject rather than reviewed for evidence to approve our model.

Third, past agreements have been ignored constituting changing the rules in the middle of the game. In 2003, then Secretary of Education Rod Paige visited Nebraska at the request of our congressional delegation and Governor, Mike Johanns. Before the day concluded, the Governor asked the Secretary, "How much flexibility do you really have?" Secretary Paige replied, "I am not sure, but I want Nebraska's system to succeed and whatever flexibility is there, I will find it."

In addition, all states had to have plans approved by July 1, 2004. Our plan which included clear outlines of our local assessment model was approved by USDE. We have proceeded on the basis that our model would be approved if we could document its technical quality. I would challenge USDE that no state has done as much to document technical quality as Nebraska. Through our national panel and portfolio reviews, our annual independent evaluations, our independent studies of the data quality, and our independent assessment benchmarks, there is little more we could do. All of these studies and data acknowledge the high levels of technical quality and power of the STARS model.

Fourth, this decision is also a violation of the law itself. In 1994, the forerunner to NCLB, the Improving America Schools ACT (IASA) was re-authorized and included "carve out" language for Nebraska and Iowa. This provision carries forward into NCLB but is now being ignored. Also, included in Section 1111 of NCLB is a provision for local assessments that is also being ignored.

The use of Peer Review guidance as a condition of compliance/regulation is also a clear violation of NCLB. Peer Review findings are to be guidance only, not regulation.

There is no explicit authority for USDE to withhold funds as a condition of forcing copliance. If an agency, such as Nebraska, is to get the work done to be in compliance, how is it to do that work when the resources to do it are being withheld? Withholding funds appears to be a clear violation of the NCLB provision that requires the federal government to fund the requirements of this Act.

In summary, it is time for USDE to be held accountable, too. USDE must be accountable for the consequences of the law which is a far stretch from the law's laudable intentions. The intentions of the law are meaningless unless they are matched by outcomes. How can a law be "good for kids" that demoralizes educators, devalues their work and is punative to schools?

This law has yet to demonstrate its good intentions. This law requires tremendous energy to be spent trying to make misaligned policy and practice work. This law ransoms assessment as an accountability policy when accountability policy should be defined as the amount of improveent realized.

I want assessment returned to the toolbox of teachers so they can use assessments to improve practice in the classroom.

We have tried to be partners. We acted in good faith in negotiating our way through the compliance requirements. We have been open, transparent and forthright.

It is time for USDE to be the partner it professes to be. It is time for USDE to stop trumping good and promising practices in schools by hiding behind the phrase "it's the law." It is time for USDE to come to the table in good faith. It is time for them to recognize the leadership role of states--state legislators, state boards of education, Governors and Chief State School Officers. It is time for them to play fair. It is time for them to accept the same accountability for evidence of good practice tha they demand of states. It is time to stop misrepresenting actions of states to the public and the media. It is time for USDE to stop changing the rules as they go.

While this is not the way we had hoped this would go, it is not a defeat or a step backwards. At best, it is place from which we move foward. At worst, it is a side step.

— Doug Christensen, Nebraska Commissioner of Education
Memorandum to All Nebraskans RE: Compliance with the Requirements of NCLB


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