Education Department Allows Limited Growth-Model Testing
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced a plan to allow as many as ten states to incorporate growth model (or value-added) accountability systems into their annual Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) calculations. Until now, AYP has compared the scores of students in a particular grade to the performance of students in that grade the following year. Amidst a rising chorus of opposition to this method of calculating AYP, this adjustment could have a significant impact on the way the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) is implemented.
AYP calculations are used to identify schools and districts that are “In Need of Improvement” under NCLB, and to apply sanctions to those schools that don't meet test score targets. NCLB requires schools and districts to improve their performance on state assessments until all of their students reach “proficiency” in 2014. The new system would retain that requirement, but would allow states to compare the performance of individual students or groups of students over time. This move is in keeping with other increases in flexibility approved by Secretary Spellings, who has said,
States that follow the bright-line principles of No Child Left Behind and show real results will be eligible for new tools to help them meet the law's ultimate goal of getting every child to grade level by 2014. In other words, if states are closing the achievement gap and meeting proficiency targets, they can qualify for additional flexibility.
In fact, many states have lowered the number of schools “in need of improvement” through other flexibility mechanisms recently approved by ED, including the use of larger subgroup sizes, confidence intervals, and an increase in the percentage of students that can be tested using alternate assessments for students with severe cognitive disabilities.
These changes, including this latest addition of a pilot growth model program, reflect the strong pressure being exerted on ED by states. Implementing a growth model assessment program, which will more accurately and fairly reflect test-score improvements by students, was one of the most heavily advocated changes to NCLB, and the success of this pilot program would be likely to improve support for the federal law. Such changes may also help to garner support for the law in Congress as the scheduled 2007 reauthorization of the law approaches.
The growth model addresses only a fraction of the concerns over NCLB. ED's insistence on maintaining the 100 percent proficiency requirement and stringent timeline originally laid out in NCLB means that many of the law's opponents will continue their protestations. It is widely agreed that reaching 100 percent proficiency is unrealistic. Furthermore, many advocates of growth model testing also argue for multiple assessments that would create a more accurate picture of student and school performance than currently offered by the use of standardized tests alone. Though the addition of any growth model program is an improvement, the challenges for schools and districts remain sharp.
Strong dissent is also likely to continue over the insufficient funding of the federal law, as two lawsuits are currently challenging federal funding levels. ED has attempted to address the funding of the new growth model by awarding 14 grants to State Education Agencies for the development of longitudinal data systems, a prerequisite for becoming one of the 10 states to implement the growth model option. These grants will likely be helpful, but implementing the new assessment system will be a costly and time-consuming process, and states will need to call on other sources of funding to meet federal requirements.
The announcement came after ED had convened a group of experts to consider the feasibility of a growth model assessment program. These experts used evidence from growth model systems already in place to develop aspects of the federal plan, which include flexibility on the method by which states track students or student cohorts and a continued insistence on full participation and measurement in mathematics and language arts. Secretary Spellings also promised to make announcements regarding increased flexibility in ELL and students with disabilities testing in the near future.
Prepared by Nelly Ward, November 28, 2005