Those separate categories are at the heart of what No Child Left Behind aimed to correct — vast achievement gaps between white, black and Hispanic students, between the affluent and low-income — and what most agree is the problem with the law: If any one of these groups of students does not meet the state's annual benchmarks for proficiency in reading and math, the school is labeled as "failing."
In a letter sent Jan. 17, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., urged Education Secretary Arne Duncan to require strong accountability measures and ensure civil rights and educational equity gains under No Child Left Behind are not lost.
"We fear that putting students with disabilities, English language learners and minority students into one 'super subgroup' will mask the individual needs of these distinct student subgroups," they said.
In the feedback provided to states by a panel of peer reviewers in December, many states were praised for plans to institute college and career-ready standards and develop teacher evaluation systems that take into account student growth — two hallmarks of the Obama administration's education policy. The panel's concerns varied, but meeting the needs of all groups of students was one consistent theme.
In New Mexico, for example, the U.S. Education Department expressed concern about a lack of incentives to close achievement gaps and hold schools accountable for the performance of all students. In a follow-up letter sent late in January, subgroup accountability was still an area of concern.
Hanna Skandera, secretary designate for the New Mexico Public Education Department, said the state's original plan did include breaking down data on student performance by subgroup on each school's report card. But after conversations with the U.S. Education Department, schools will be adding information on whether they are on track for progress and growth in meeting annual targets. If a group falls behind, schools will be subject to intervention measures.
"We had high level reporting," Skandera said. "Now we're going to provide another layer so everything is crystal clear to parents across the state."
Minnesota's initial feedback included concern about "the lack of incentives to improve achievement for all groups of students and narrow achievement gap between subgroups." Sam Kramer, federal education policy specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, said most of that criticism was focused on the state's graduation rate. In its initial submission, the state did not take into account the graduation rate of different subgroups in its annual targets.
After receiving the letter, the state switched to a system that will take into account how subgroups of students did in meeting those graduation targets.
Kramer said he thinks Minnesota will be better able to meet the needs of disadvantaged groups of students under the new system.
"No Child Left Behind was very good at diagnosing the problem," Kramer said. "It was very good at shining a light on the differences between subgroups."
It was less effective, he said, at offering successful ways to help improve.
"We are going to be able to go in and be flexible and reactive to the specific needs of those subgroups," Kramer said.
Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said the struggle by school districts to lift the performance of different groups of students is a signal of a deeper problem that won't be solved by waivers.
"We need to make sure the districts and schools feel some pressure to make sure that all the students they are responsible for are being educated," he said. "However, they need to focus on different kinds of evidence, and not merely performance on a standardized test. That's where they don't get it."
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