How ESEA Waivers Did—And Did Not—Transform School Accountability

The Education Department’s flurry of waivers from the No Child Left Behind accountability regime has changed the rules for states and profoundly altered how they identify schools for intervention. This report from the New America Foundation examines data from sixteen of the forty-two states that received waivers. It compares the number of Title I schools—typically poorer schools—that were in “improvement” status (i.e., required intervention) in these states’ last year under NCLB accountability (2011–12) and their first year under ESEA flexibility (2012–13). Across the sixteen states, analysts found that the number of schools in improvement fell by 34 percent. Some states had remarkable drops: Massachusetts, for example, identified 718 schools for improvement under NCLB (which was almost surely too many), while under its waiver it fingered just 162. Interestingly, though, five of the sixteen states bucked the trend, showing increases in the number of schools in improvement. Why? ESEA waivers have changed the method by which states identify their low-performing schools. States have moved from NCLB’s absolute standard (i.e., whether a school makes “Adequate Yearly Progress”) to a relative standard under ESEA flexibility (i.e., whether a school is in the bottom 15 percent of statewide performance). Many have also moved toward considering student growth over time as a significant factor in school ratings. The right approach to accountability—whether at a federal, state, and even at a charter-school-authorizer level—is far from settled. The report’s author writes that “identifying low-performing schools is the easy part, compared to actually improving them.” This is true, but it’s also undeniable that identifying which schools require intervention remains a challenge in itself.  

SOURCE: Anne Hyslop, “It’s All Relative: How NCLB Waivers Did—And Did Not—Transform School Accountability,” Education Policy Program (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation, December 2013).

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