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4-14-15 Education Issues in the News

Education Week - Where Does the Edu-World Stand on the Bipartisan NCLB Rewrite?

By Lauren Camera on April 13, 2015 3:07 PM

Education stakeholders are weighing in ahead of Tuesday's Senate education committee markup of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind rewrite.

While there has been lots of applause for Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the committee, for their ability to broker a legislative compromise, organizations are writing to the committee and pushing out policy critiques of the measure in an effort to highlight their specific—and sometimes wonky—priorities.

Here is where several of the major players stand:

A group of 41 civil rights and other education advocates sent a letter to Alexander and Murray to push back on what they see as a lack of accountability in the bipartisan bill. The jist of their letter: "While we applaud your bipartisan effort to significantly improve the discussion draft offered in January, we believe that the bill must be improved by: strengthening accountability for student outcomes; providing additional data on student groups; addressing disparities in resources; and providing a more meaningful federal role." Read more here.

Also on Monday, a coalition of civil rights and business groups joined forces in sending a letter to Alexander and Murray asking them to beef up the bill's accountability systems by requiring states to identify chronically low-performing schools and schools where any subgroup of students fails to meet state-established goals. They also want the measure to limit the weight of additional indicators in accountability systems that are not direct measures of student learning, and add language that ensures the Secretary of Education has authority to enforce the law when states and districts have not met their legal obligations. The coalition includes: the Education Trust, Democrats for Education Reform, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Council of La Raza, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Business Roundtable, and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.

The two national teachers' unions are singing somewhat different tunes when it comes to the Alexander-Murray bill. The 3 million-member National Education Association wants a revised law to push harder on exposing and rectifying inequities in funding and teacher quality, explained my colleague Stephen Sawchuk over on the Teacher Beat. Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers is supporting the bill, writing in a press release: "Their framework restores ESEA's original intent of mitigating poverty and addressing education equity. It moves away from the increasingly counterproductive focus on sanctions, high-stakes tests, federalized teacher evaluations and school closings."

The Alliance for Excellent Education is calling for senators to strengthen the accountability provisions for low-performing schools by requiring states to target resources and focus reform on high schools with a graduation rate at or below 67 percent.

"The bill provides extensive flexibility to states on how to respond [to low-performing schools], but it does not actually require states to act, instead permitting states to decide when, if, and where to intervene," writes Bob Wise, the Alliance's president and former West Virginia governor and U.S. Representative, in this blog post. "That is like equipping the fire department with new tools and alarms, then giving each fire house the option to choose which fires to put out."

Wise's organization also joined up with the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center on a letter to committee members that also argued the compromised legislation lacks meaningful subgroup accountability. More on that here.

Third Way released a handy memo that highlights five major policy areas, explains how those policies diverge from current law, and provides a brief analysis of what might be lacking. For instance, regarding giving states the flexibility to design their own accountability systems, the organization writes: "In particular, the lack of specificity about how much different factors should weigh in the accountability system (including average performance versus performance among subgroups) raises concerns that states will choose to turn a blind eye to students who need assistance the most—which history has shown their proclivity to do—without facing any repercussions."

Over at the conservative Heritage Foundation, analyst Lindsey Burke slammed the measure for failing to eliminate "the dozens upon dozens of ineffective and duplicative programs that have accrued over the decades, favoring consolidation of these programs over elimination and attendant spending cuts." More on her take here.

The National School Boards Association wrote the education committee urging members  "to oppose any proposals supporting vouchers or tuition tax credits to non-public schools" throughout the legislative process. You can read their entire letter here.

Education Week - States Pitch Changes as They Seek NCLB Waiver Renewals

By Alyson Klein

Published Online: April 14, 2015

Published in Print: April 15, 2015, as States Pitch Changes as They Seek to Extend NCLB Waivers

 

Even as Congress wrestles to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration has one last clear opportunity to put its stamp on the outdated law before leaving office in early 2017: renewals of NCLB waivers, which could last through the 2018-19 school year.

 

Every state that currently has a waiver from provisions of the law—held by 42 states and the District of Columbia—would like to renew the flexibility for up to four more years, even as Congress appears likely to give far more leeway to states on accountability, standards, and teacher quality in a pending overhaul of the law.

 

An Education Week review of selected renewal requests submitted by the initial deadline of March 31 shows states seeking changes on a range of issues, including teacher evaluation, testing, and A through F grading systems for schools.

In particular, some states are grappling with how to determine when a school has made enough progress to no longer be considered low-performing.

 

The U.S. Department of Education will spend the next few months reviewing the renewal applications.

 

 

Already, five states that submitted their applications in January through a special process—Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia—have been approved. These states were permitted to apply for four-year waivers rather than just the maximum of three for most other states because they have remained on track in the tricky area of teacher evaluation.

 

Seeking Extensions

Most states have filed applications to renew their waivers from many mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act for up to four years. Five states were allowed to apply early, under an expedited process, and were renewed last month. Another 29 filed their applications by March 31, and will hear about their renewals later this year.

 

Early Approvals

Kentucky: Tweaked its accountability system to give schools additional credit for reducing the number of students scoring at the “novice” (lowest) level on state tests, and for moving students to a higher level. Schools would lose points if students slip from a higher level into “novice” or “apprentice” (second-lowest) level.

Minnesota: Added language to its waiver making the district role in supporting school turnarounds clear, consistent with a new state law.

New Mexico: Reworked its system for identifying and supporting low-performing schools for intensive interventions, as well as other schools targeted for extra help.

North Carolina: Revised its accountability system to issue schools grades on an A through F scale. The grades are based 80 percent on achievement and 20 percent on growth.

Virginia: Revised its teacher-evaluation system to give educators more-timely information about their students’ performance.

Highlights From Pending Applications or State Waiver Material

Colorado: Seeking to delay incorporating English-language learner’s test scores into school accountability systems until those students have been in the country for two years, instead of one. Wants to keep parents opting children out of state tests from counting against the 95 percent assessment participation threshold schools have to meet to avoid federal sanctions. Interested in exploring a local testing pilot, in which districts could use their own

assessments in certain years in lieu of the state’s.

Connecticut: Seeking to delay incorporating English-language learner’s test scores into school accountability systems until those students have been in the country for two years, instead of one. Wants to delay incorporating student performance into teacher-evaluation systems until 2016-17, a year longer than the U.S. Department of Education has allowed.

South Carolina: Wants to drop its A through F grading system for schools, but keep its index for rating them. Is seeking to phase in its new teacher evaluation system, starting with elementary schools next school year, and then moving toward middle and high schools in the 2016-17 school year.

Florida: Wants to use the state’s A through F grading system as the primary metric for identifying low-performing schools and those with big achievement gaps. Schools would also be able to qualify for interventions because of low graduation rates. Would revamp the state’s process for supporting low performing schools to place greater emphasis on what the state calls “collaborative problem solving.”

Michigan: Proposing to make a shift from identifying the schools in the waiver program’s two categories of low-performing schools every year to identifying those schools every three years.

Source: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

In general, the early-renewal waiver states were seeking only modest changes to their systems, not major revisions.

 

Accountability Snooze Button

State schools chiefs from Minnesota, New Mexico, and Virginia made it clear that even if waivers don't stay in place very much longer—either because the NCLB law is rewritten or because a new administration comes in and takes a different approach—the plans could inform accountability systems for years to come.

"We don't want to move the goal posts" for students and teachers, said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's education commissioner.

At least a handful of states are taking the department up on a special, one-time-only flexibility: the ability to "pause" state-level school rating systems during the 2014-15 school year. This leeway was available to all states that are switching to new assessments aligned to new standards, not just states with waivers.

Among the states that indicated in their applications or on their websites that they are interested in the pause: Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, and South Carolina. Vermont, which does not have a waiver, but is making the transition to a new testing system, also raised its hand for the pause.

"It does ease the pressure," said Staci Curry, the director of accountability services for the Mississippi Department of Education, which will be giving one test aligned to the Common Core State Standards this year, but is in the market for a new version. Given all that transition, "we were talking about the need for [some kind of pause] before [the] feds even offered it."

But one of the biggest challenges for states in dealing with waiver renewals has been an under-the-radar issue with serious ramifications for school improvement: Just how much progress a "priority" school—one that's been singled out as among the 5 percent of lowest performers in the state and targeted for dramatic interventions—needs to make it before it gets to stop being a "priority" school?

And, on a similar note, when do "focus" schools—the 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps between poor and minority students and the rest of the population, or which have other pervasive problems—get to stop being "focus" schools?

Figuring out an exit for priority and focus schools "has been a common point of contention among a number of states," said Veronica Tate, the director of program administration and accountability for the Virginia Department of Education.

The issue, she said, is that some of the schools initially singled out for intensive interventions have improved significantly, but may not have jumped over the bar many states initially set for leaving improvement status.

Meanwhile, other schools in states may have greater academic need, including wider achievement gaps, but states may be reluctant to add them to the priority list, since there are only so many resources to go around.

 

Exit Strategy

Of the states that won early approval, New Mexico sought and got the Education Department's blessing for what may be the most dramatic change. The question of an exit strategy for low-performing schools was at the heart of it.

Under New Mexico's original system, schools were included in the priority category if they were considered as being in the bottom 5 percent based on a complicated formula that included graduation rates, achievement gap reduction, and their A through F letter grade.

Originally, schools could get out of priority status if they got an A, B, or C in the state's accountability system for two years in a row. But that proved problematic, said Leighann Lenti, deputy secretary of program and policy at the New Mexico Public Education Department.

"Year over year, that school might have been making gains and progress, but they couldn't exit if they didn't meet a somewhat arbitrary threshold," she said.

Instead, New Mexico is deciding which schools to put in the priority category based primarily on achievement or high school graduation rates. But the state is putting in safeguards to ensure that, once a school gets that label, it will get three years of interventions, and once a school is put in the focus category, it will get two years of sustained help.

Meanwhile, states are proposing other accountability changes. At least one—South Carolina—has moved to drop its A through F rating system.

 

Evaluation Extension

Teacher evaluation has generally been the trickiest area of waiver implementation. But the Education Department has also offered the most leeway in this area. Most significantly, last fall, the Obama administration allowed states transitioning to new tests to put off incorporating test scores into evaluations.

Some states still want more time. Connecticut said on its website it may seek a delay in incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations until the 2016-17 school year—a year longer than the Education Department wanted.

 

And South Carolina is seeking to phase in its new teacher-evaluation system, starting with elementary schools next school year, and then moving into middle and high schools in the 2016-17 school year.

 

Earlier this year, after months of drama and back-and-forth negotiations, Florida was able to get the U.S. Department of Education's blessing for what amounts to a big change to testing for English-language learners. The Obama administration eventually allowed the Sunshine State to wait until English-learners have been in the country for two years before their test scores must count for school-accountability purposes.

Now, at least two other states—Colorado and Connecticut—are in the market for a similar deal.

 

And some states have expressed interest in replicating another special waiver: The department recently moved to allow New Hampshire to try local tests in lieu of statewide assessments in certain grade-spans in a select handful of districts. Colorado has said it would like to plan a similar local assessment system.

 

RELATED BLOG

A few states have asked for additional time to get their applications together, including

 

Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, one state, Nebraska, is applying for a waiver for the first time. Nebraska doesn't necessarily expect its waiver to be approved, however. The state's teacher-evaluation system, which makes performance reviews based on state test scores optional, doesn't conform to the federal vision.

 

But the state sees the application process as a good planning step, to help think through where Nebraska may want to go in the future on testing and accountability, said Matthew Blomstedt, the state chief.

 

Star Ledger - PARCC: Private workers seeing student info need background checks, bill says

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com 
Email the author | Follow on Twitter 
on April 13, 2015 at 5:30 PM, updated April 14, 2015 at 7:11 AM

 

TRENTON — A new bill introduced in the New Jersey Assembly says students need protection from employees securing the PARCC tests.

The bill (A4345) would require any employees of state-contracted companies to undergo the same background check as public school employees before they can gain access to students' personal information.

It was introduced because of concerns about third-party searches for PARCC test leaks, including those posted on students' social media pages, bill sponsors said.

"If we are going to give these individuals a window into the social media lives of our students, then we should ensure that they are law-abiding citizens who will not use this access and information for nefarious purposes," said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), one of the bill's sponsors.

Under New Jersey's contract for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams, a subcontractor of testing company Pearson has been scouring the internet for potential test security breaches.

Any suspected breaches are then sent to Pearson, which until mid-March had been cross referencing names on those social media accounts with a list of students taking PARCC.

The bill would prohibit the Department of Education from entering into a contract with a private entity if the services involve access to student information until the employees who will have access to that information have undergone a criminal history records check.

Those employees would have to pay for the background check, according to the bill, and the state would not be allowed to enter into a contract with that company if any of those employees have a disqualifying crime or offense.

"Making criminal background checks mandatory for these employees is a minor inconvenience when you consider the potential for peril," said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), another sponsor of the bill.

Pearson spokeswoman Stacy Skelly said the company has no comment on the proposed legislation.

PARCC test security measures drew criticism in March after the state Department of Education contacted Watchung Hills Regional High School District about a student's PARCC-related tweet. The American Federation of Teachers launched a petition demanding Pearson stop online searches for test breaches and the chairman of the state Assembly Education Committee called the searches "unacceptable."

Pearson and Caveon Test Security, the subcontractor conducting the searches, have maintained that the search pulls only from publicly available web pages, which anyone can see.

Caveon searches for keywords, such as the titles of reading passages, and no one scans individual student's social media pages looking to see what they are posting, the companies said. Caveon has said it does not use any student information as part of its search process.

New Jersey is paying $96,574 for the service, and the Department of Education has said the searching is necessary because posting a test question on social media is "akin to handing out test questions on the steps of the school."

The PARCC consortium, a partnership of states administering the standardized tests, asked Pearson last month to stop cross referencing names on social media accounts associated with suspected test breaches with the list of students taking the tests.

That decision was made "in the interest of proactively addressing any perceived concerns" about the pursuit of PARCC security breaches, PARCC spokesperson David Connerty-Marin said.

The security measures were the subject of an Assembly Education Committee inquiry last month, and Committee Chair Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) pledged to introduce legislation on the issue. Diegnan is the third sponsor of the bill.

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClarkFind NJ.com on Facebook


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