Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 24 July 2012 13:14
Kansas schools may have received a reprieve last week from the unrealistic goal of No Child Left Behind, but that doesn’t mean districts won’t be held accountable for the academic growth of every student.
The U.S. Department of Education announced Thursday it had approved requests from Kansas and five other states for flexibility in meeting some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, including its mandate that every student at every school pass state reading and math assessments by 2014.
“I don’t want it to be misconstrued that we are no longer accountable,” said Steve Noble, USD 410 superintendent. “It’s that the accountability will shift to what they consider to be a measure of growth in an individual student rather than a bar set at the same level for every kid.”
Noble said receiving the waiver is good news for Kansas public schools.
“No Child Left Behind, as it is currently drafted, was destined to fail because 100 percent proficiency—not just meeting it, but then sustaining it over long periods of time—was practically impossible,” Noble said.
“Theoretically, it was a great idea; practically, it was impossible.”
Under No Child Left Behind, student success—and ultimately a school’s accreditation—was based on a single assessment administered in a particular academic area. Also figured in were attendance rates for K-8 students and graduation rates for grades 9-12.
Schools were required to reach a prescribed performance level, regardless of students’ background or natural aptitude.
Noble likened that approach to requiring every young athlete out for high jump to clear a prescribed height in order to be “successful.”
“Some of those kids are 4 feet tal, some of the kids are 6 feet tall; some of the kids can jump 30 inches and some can hardly get off the ground,” he said. “If we set the bar at 5 feet, 6 inches and say every kid’s got to clear 5 feet, 6 inches today or you’re a failure—well, that’s physically impossible for some kids. They just can’t do it.”
Noble said rural school generally have been more successful than urban schools in reaching the standard set by No Child Left Behind, but they too would find it nearly impossible sustain it year in and year out.
“There was never a doubt that we thought we could get pretty close to 100 percent proficiency,” Noble said about USD 410. “And in some years, Hillsboro has had 100 percent proficiency at certain grade levels and certain content areas.
“But that’s not sustainable over the long term,” he added. “You’ll have dips and valleys. We have a class of kids in our district right now where about a third of them that are identified as special-ed kids.
“That’s a challenge when you have a class come through that has some learning needs. You’re going to take a dip in your (overall) performance because the high-jump bar isn’t any lower.”
With the waiver, the state will measure success for each student on the basis of individualized learning plans.
“No Child Left Behind, in its current format, said, ‘Here is the bar and every kid has to jump it,’” Noble said. “It didn’t take into account that a kid cleared 3 feet yesterday and cleared 31?2 feet the following year and cleared 4 feet the year after that. He has been a ‘failure’ under No Child Left Behind all of his life, but he’s made tremendous growth.
“That’s what the new accountability system will do. It holds schools accountable that every child grows. That hasn’t gone away, but the way we measure it will change.”
The system in Kansas, still in the developmental stage, is rooted in the Common Core State Standards, a national effort developed by states in collaboration with teachers, school administrators and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare children for college and the workforce.
Kansas will implement plans aimed at improving low-performing schools, increasing teacher efficiency and preparing students for college and careers.
“Rather than get students ready for a test, or learn surface-level concepts and regurgitate material back to us, Common Core asks us to go deeper with kids and take it to the next level, which is applied learning,” Nobel said.
“The classroom will have to do more applied-learning concepts,” he added. “You’ll see an active classroom. You’ll see kids actually learning by doing. You’ll see kids doing projects and experiential learning—going out into the communities and doing things to enhance their learning.
“The classroom will change significantly as a result of this, over time.”
Noble said USD 410, with 31 career “Pathways” established at the high school, is already considered a state leader in career and technical education.
While testing will continue to be part of the accountability process, Noble said the new electronic assessment tools being developed for the Common Core approach are designed to reveal the learning progress of each student.
“We give an assessment like that right now, called the MAP assessment—Measure of Academic Progress,” he said. “Each student gets a score, and it’s normed—it tell where you are, and where your peers nationwide are.”
Cost of change
Getting a waiver from No Child Left Behind doesn’t come with an economic savings for school districts—at least not in the short run.
This summer, Noble said USD 410 invested $17,000 in training a group of teachers in the use of the Common Core curriculum. Those teachers will then serve as the training team for the rest of the faculty.
To prepare for the transition, Noble said he has doubled the district’s in-service budget for the coming year.
Last week’s announcement increases the number of states to receive waivers to 32, plus the District of Columbia.
Eight of those waivers, including Kansas’, are conditional, meaning the states have not entirely satisfied federal requirements and parts of their plans are under review.
Sen. Jerry Moran, in a prepared statement, said waiver approval for Kansas meant “much needed freedom from the burdensome requirements of No Child Left Behind.”
But he criticized the Education Department’s process of “dangling relief from federal mandates in front of states in exchange for agreeing to adopt (Obama) administration policies,” saying it could lead to further top-down mandates.
Moran said a complete overhaul of No Child Left Behind should be a priority for Congress, but neither chamber currently plans to debate reauthorization measures.
That prospect troubles Noble.
“They’ve got to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” he said. “2014 is fast approaching and they’re going to have the majority of the country unaccredited.
“That has severe implications. I don’t know how these kids are going to get into college with a diploma from an unaccredited high school.”
Combined with the uncertain future of state funding for schools, Noble said the future of public school education in Kansas continues to be a work in progress.
“Education is as fluid right now as I’ve seen it in 20 years of doing this.”