Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, speaking at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) conference in Washington, D.C., indicated that she might consider a “growth model” of assessment–a system of measuring individual students’ academic improvement as they advance from grade to grade–that could allow states to change how they rate student progress.

Reaching out to the AFT audience during a “conversation” with AFT President Edward J. McElroy, in which she answered pre-determined questions, Spellings appeared receptive to teachers’ concerns and indicated that she shared many of the AFT members’ goals.

“A school not meeting AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] or a school in need of improvement is not, in my opinion, a failing school,” Spellings said to an applauding crowd during the July 8 gathering. She said the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is looking seriously at a growth model for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, but provided few specifics.

On July 14, an ED spokesman gave eSchool News an update.

“Right now, a growth-model working group is trying to figure out what exactly that growth model would be,” said Chad Colby, an ED deputy press secretary. “We want to know if there’s a way we can still get students to proficiency by using different levels of growth [for students who perform at different levels],” he said.

At press time, the working group had met only once. It was expected to meet again to determine if states can track growth by showing significant overall gains from year to year instead of having everyone meet the same benchmark, Colby added.

During the conference, AFT’s emphasis was on urging ED to make practical alterations to NCLB. McElroy said many teachers think the current AYP requirement doesn’t really measure progress, a notion reflected in the AFT’s advocacy program called “NCLB–Let’s Get It Right.” He added that teachers and paraprofessionals feel the law’s emphasis is more on testing and less on the quality of instruction, and that many subjects still believed to be important–such as foreign languages and civics–are shortchanged because students are not tested on them.

Spellings said she heard similar concerns from educators in Texas when implementing a precursor to NCLB with then-Gov. Bush, suggesting that teachers of subjects such as foreign languages and civics should be patient. NCLB started with reading and math, she noted, but now is moving on to science, and eventually will bring all the important subjects to the fore.

Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, schools are judged on how current students in a grade score compared with how the previous year’s students in that same grade scored on reading and math tests, instead of following a student’s progress through different grades.

“We also believe, however, that we have to keep score … and have to make assessments to know where [students] are,” McElroy said. “How do you take care of both concerns?”

“In many ways … we’re in the infancy of testing and accountability. We’re going to have a rounding-out of this keeping score,” Spellings responded.

To have a sound growth model system, schools first need annual data, Spellings said, acknowledging that ED and other educational organizations need improvement. Looking at data gives school administrators crucial information on what a school or district needs to improve, she said.

McElroy said some of the difficulty occurs when guidelines are set on the federal level but then handed to state officials, who get to decide what those guidelines mean and what proficiency levels meet those guidelines.

Spellings said she has heard similar concerns about school testing before, and that the testing system will be expanded to include more options. While her comments suggest ED will be open to exploring new options for meeting AYP, such as the growth model of assessment, educators presumably will have to wait to discover what those options might be. Still, her apparent readiness to work with educators is a good start, conference attendees said.

“We were pleased by her openness and her willingness to be there, speak with us, and express her views,” said Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers.

Iannuzzi said AFT members generally disagree with Spellings on issues such as AYP interpretation and NCLB funding levels, but he said he was pleased to hear Spellings say a school that doesn’t meet AYP is not a failing school. The AFT believes NCLB is needed but that it must change, and it’s encouraging that Spellings would welcome the union’s input, he added.

“She was frank in her responses and was willing to say where she disagreed with us and hear where we disagreed with her. I think that type of openness will go a long way,” he said.

McElroy cited statistics showing that two-thirds of school districts will receive fewer Title I dollars this year, leaving them short of money. He also conveyed the AFT majority opinion that NCLB funding is inadequate and will not help the program.

“We’re always going to have these talks about money,” Spellings said. “I’m going to use my access to the White House to fight for all I can get within the budget” in a time of war.

Under Bush’s leadership, she added, NCLB funding has increased 40 percent since the law was passed.

“I’m proud that we’ve focused Title I as never before on our neediest kids,” Spellings answered, “and those resources have increased significantly.”

Not everyone was fully impressed with Spellings’ remarks.

“There are certain areas in which she was kind of rigid but managed to sound open,” said attendee Mary Bergan, president of the California Federation of Teachers and a vice president of the AFT. “We would like to see the same standards applied to supplemental services and charter schools that are applied to public schools, and she sidestepped that [issue], so that was a concern.”

In fact, when the conversation turned to supplemental services and charter schools, Spellings told McElroy and the audience that accountability is, in some ways, a state issue. Private supplemental service companies and charter schools are held to state standards and do not appear on state approval lists if they fall short of their states’ requirements, she said.

Still, Bergan said, she was heartened that Spellings at least seemed amenable to changes on AYP. “She seemed open to listening to things, and I think that’s the first step toward making change,” Bergan said.

Spellings appears to be more conciliatory toward teachers’ unions than her predecessor, Rod Paige, who once called the National Education Association (NEA) a “terrorist organization.”

“She’s certainly done a lot in public to indicate that she wants to listen to the concerns of teachers and educators,” said Dan Kaufman, a spokesman for the NEA.

Kaufman said his organization has expressed interest in meeting with Spellings to discuss NCLB. “We haven’t heard anything back yet, but we’re still hopeful that she’ll be willing to work with us,” he said.

Despite some differences of opinion, Spellings and McElroy said they were eager to form a working partnership and further the progress of testing and accountability. McElroy praised the education secretary and said not many people at her level would sit before an audience of teachers to answer questions.

“The bottom line is that we’re going to do what’s best for kids,” McElroy told the secretary, “and I know you’re going to do what’s best for kids.”

See these related links:

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

No Child Left Behind
http://www.ed.gov/nclb

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org