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Education Waiver Needs Work

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New Mexico’s application for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act is in the midst of significant revisions after federal reviewers said the first draft failed to address the achievement gap, according to documents released by the state Public Education Department.

A lack of attention to subgroups of students – such as ethnic groups and students learning English – was of particular concern to the panel reviewing the application.

New Mexico Secretary of Education-designate Hanna Skandera says she is undaunted, and hopes New Mexico will receive a waiver in time to avoid calculating “Adequate Yearly Progress” measures this year.

Last year, 87 percent of schools in the state failed to make AYP.

Skandera has said she does not agree with the pass-fail nature of AYP and No Child Left Behind, which labels schools as failing if they miss even one of several criteria. She said the state’s new A-F school grading system would provide better information because it shows schools’ academic growth, instead of just their raw scores.

The Obama administration has been encouraging states to seek waivers from the law.

“We’ve known all along it was going to be a healthy back-and-forth,” Skandera said of the waiver process. “Knowing how these processes go, it’s been good.”

New Mexico was one of 11 states that applied for a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, seeking to use its own accountability systems instead of federal ones.

New Mexico’s new accountability system, which was introduced in January, assigns A-F grades to schools based on student test scores, improvement on those scores, and other factors. Skandera says this is better than the “pass-fail” school ratings under No Child Left Behind because it gives a more nuanced picture.

Other states will have opportunities to apply later.

Among the 11 in the first group, most were asked to revise and resubmit their applications because of concerns similar to those raised with New Mexico’s application.

New Mexico’s initial application, which was returned to the PED in December, was reviewed by a panel that will advise U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on whether to approve applications, according to a cover letter. On every criterion but one, the panel said New Mexico’s application was not ready to be accepted.

A follow-up letter dated Jan. 24 showed many of the concerns had been addressed, although the panelists’ key concerns about the A-F school grading system remained. The reviewers said the system did not address achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups, or the particular challenges faced by students with disabilities or those learning English.

New Mexico’s grading system rewards schools for raising the test scores of the lowest-scoring students, but does not give incentives for boosting the achievement of particular subgroups, like Hispanic students or English learners.

Skandera said her staff has been having weekly phone calls with federal staff to work on revising the application. She said the final application will include requirements that struggling schools develop plans to address their lowest-performing subgroups.

“So if your Asian students are remarkably behind and that’s showing up in the data, then we’re really going to focus in and make sure we work on that,” Skandera said.

The January letter also is critical of how high schools are graded under the A-F system, suggesting that those in which low-performing students drop out early might receive better grades than schools that retain all their students.

According to the letter, graduation rate is a small portion of the grade, and most other parts of the grade are based on tests and classes taken in 11th and 12th grades. So schools could benefit if low-achieving students dropped out before junior year, according to the letter.

The letter also raises concerns about the way the A-F system uses statistical modeling to “level the playing field” for schools with greater challenges – such as those with more students who are learning English or who come from low-income families. It questioned whether those methods set lower standards for schools with challenging populations, and questioned “the transparency of these estimates for parents and educators.”

Skandera said she has assured federal reviewers that although the grades help make valid comparisons among schools, the state has the same ambitions for all students: to be proficient in reading and math, to graduate on time and to be ready for college or career.

She said the statistical controls in the A-F model do not set lower expectations for particular subgroups, but recognize the work of teachers whose students arrive several years below grade level.

“At times in the past, schools were disadvantaged if students were coming in way behind,” Skandera said. “Because you didn’t capture growth, you couldn’t show, ‘You guys are doing an unbelievable job. Job well done, because although your students are coming in behind, you are absolutely closing the achievement gap.’”

She also said she thinks the system has been transparent and understandable for parents.

“We’ve gotten unbelievable feedback about the transparency,” Skandera said, noting that the school grading website – found at www.ped.state.nm.us- has gotten more than 268,000 hits since it was launched. “The feedback we’re getting from parents, by email or even just when I’m at the gym, people come up and say, ‘For the first time I’m getting a sense of what’s going on in our schools.’”

A key piece of the waiver application rests on passage of a teacher evaluation overhaul under consideration by state lawmakers.

The plan was developed by a task force of teachers, administrators, parents and others convened by Gov. Susana Martinez. It recommended a system based largely on how much a teacher’s students improve their test scores.

Skandera said the best thing New Mexico residents can do to support the No Child Left Behind waiver effort is to support the teacher evaluation bill.

“Call your legislator and get that teacher bill through, because we’re counting on it and it’s a critical part of our waiver,” she said.
SKANDERA: Process is healthy back-and-forthFeds say first draft of No Child application fails to address achievement gapSee N.M. EDUCATION on PAGE A3from PAGE A1N.M. Education Waiver Needs Work”Knowing how these processes go, it’s been good.”HANNA SKANDERA, N.M. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION DESIGNATE

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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