Federal Dateline

The Ins and Outs of Implementing NCLB

by Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck

“Yes, but what does it mean?” That’s the million dollar question—one that’s been asked over and over again since Jan. 7, 2002.

What does the No Child Left Behind Act mean for education, for states, for school districts, for teachers and for kids?

The answers started out pretty vague. The original party line from the U.S. Department of Education sounded impressive: “More accountability for results, increased flexibility, options for parents, and teaching strategies that work.” But educators and policymakers asked, “What does that mean?” As the months passed, the rhetoric got more specific—more testing and more disaggregated data. But still we were forced to continue our quest for meaning.

Throughout the past year federal policy experts and practitioners alike waited for the next peek at what the sweeping legislation would mean. Slowly, information trickled out of the Education Department in the form of proposed regulations, clarifying letters, official and nonofficial guidance and ultimately final regulations. Every new document released raised more questions than answers. What does a statewide accountability system really look like? How is it going to differ from—or be the same as—what states have today?

Our latest and most informative sneak peek comes in the form of the approved state accountability plans. First the federal government released the token five statewide plans (Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio) on the anniversary of the bill’s signing in January. Nothing further was released until late March, and new plans have been approved and made available in fits and starts since then.

Wide Variations
The devil really is in the details. First, the process by which accountability plans are approved is flexible, as anticipated, but also highly political. Reports coming out of state meetings with the Education Department reveal that negotiation is the name of the game. As a result, the state plans vary markedly, and policy decisions reflected in one state’s plan may not be found in another’s.

The Education Department has made good on its promise to work with states to include the progress many have made in standards-based reform. Early on, the states with approved plans were the ones with fairly well-developed systems of standards and assessments. Almost all had their own state criterion-referenced assessment. And many built on existing systems of accountability.

The good news is that 50 disparate state plans will reflect the state’s distinctive characteristics. Unfortunately, all school districts and schools in those states still have the same goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014, but they have to reach it playing by very different rules. Some states, depending on their negotiating success with the federal agency, may have a better playing field than others.

For example, the subgroup size for figuring adequate yearly progress differs widely among the states. States so far have set their minimum subgroup size from five to 50. Not all states provided details about how they will test for statistical significance but those that did showed considerable variety. One state (Ohio) set two subgroup sizes—30 for most students and 45 for students with disabilities. The result of using different methods of statistical testing will be school systems across state lines held accountable for the performance of wildly varying subgroup sizes.

The annual and intermediate goals set for students’ yearly progress also vary greatly. Some states set goals of equal annual increases each year until reaching 100 percent proficiency in 2014. Others took advantage of flexibility in the regulations and “stair-stepped” their goals, showing increases only every two to three years, while still others showed slower increases for the first three to seven years, followed by steady annual increases in later years.

This last option, often called a “balloon payment” plan, delays the greatest amount of achievement increases required. These states are waiting, perhaps, for political changes or legislative relief or they assume as changes in instruction and capacity are put in place increasing test scores will be easier.

Therefore states will have different experiences making adequate yearly progress. A state that chooses a stair-step pattern will give its schools more time to catch up between increasing goals. A state that chooses a balloon payment gives its schools a break for the first six to eight years. Again, same goal, different rules.

Explanation Needed
So what does it all mean? This fall, many superintendents will have some explaining to do. Adequate yearly progress is a complex-enough process to explain to parents and the public. How do you explain in simple terms, for example, why Maryland has more schools identified as needing improvement than West Virginia?

In addition to better communication with parents, superintendents also must reach out to the wider public—those without children in school—to explain what’s inside the black box. What is the school system doing to improve student achievement and to close the achievement gap between groups of students? What indicators of success are not reflected in the federal standard for student progress?

One thing about NCLB needs no further explaining among school leaders: It is more than a policy challenge; it is a public relations challenge.

Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a policy analyst at AASA. E-mail: tschwartzbeck@aasa.org