U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on Nov. 18 announced a pilot program through which qualified states can submit proposals for developing growth models of assessment that follow the principles of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The announcement, which Spellings made in Richmond, Va., during an address to the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Annual Policy Forum, marks a significant policy shift in how federal officials interpret the testing requirements of NCLB.

A growth model of assessment is a system of measuring individual students’ academic improvement as they advance from grade to grade. Current NCLB rules force states to measure schools’ performance by comparing the scores of last year’s eighth-graders, for example, with this year’s group.

Many educators believe a growth model offers a more accurate way to gauge student performance–and a fairer way for schools to be held accountable for their success.

As part of the pilot, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) this year will approve up to 10 states’ proposals for assessing student progress using a growth model.

If the pilot program catches on, it could open the door for more flexibility in how states must measure their schools’ performance under NCLB.

Spellings first hinted that the department was considering the idea of allowing a growth model earlier this year.

At the annual conference of the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., in July, Spellings indicated that she might consider the growth model of assessment during a question-and-answer session with teachers in which she appeared receptive to teachers’ concerns about NCLB (see “At AFT, Spellings signals NCLB leeway“.)

At the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Annual Policy Forum last week, Spellings warned that the department’s latest attempt at NCLB flexibility is not an opening to skirt the law’s high standards of accountability.

“A growth model is not a way around accountability standards. It’s a way for states that are already raising achievement and following the bright-line principles of the law to strengthen accountability,” she said.

“We’re open to new ideas, but we’re not taking our eye off the ball. There are many different routes for states to take, but they all must begin with a commitment to annual assessment and disaggregation of data. And they all must lead to closing the achievement gap and every student reaching grade level by 2014. This is good policy for all students, and we must stick with it.” (For the full text of Spellings’ remarks, follow the link in the box to the right.)

Many education groups praised Spellings’ announcement.

“This is the right step to take,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), in a Nov. 18 statement. “The Center has been calling for an experiment like this, since educators for years have been saying that this approach is a fairer way to measure student progress.”

In a report released earlier this month, the CEP raised concerns about the process federal officials have used to grant flexibility to individual states in implementing NCLB, because this process often has lacked transparency.

“In contrast,” Jennings said, “the open, public process of announcing the new growth-model demonstration program allows parents, educators, and policy makers to understand how student achievement will be measured in participating states.”

Grants for statewide data systems

In other department news, ED’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has awarded a total of $52.8 million in grants to 14 state education departments for the design and implementation of statewide longitudinal data systems.

Aimed at helping these states produce accurate and timely data to meet the reporting requirements of NCLB, support the decision-making of local school leaders, and aid in education research, the grants range from $1.5 million to nearly $6 million and extend for three years.

States receiving the grants are Alaska ($3.5 million), Arkansas ($3.3 million), California ($3.3 million), Connecticut ($1.5 million), Florida ($1.6 million), Kentucky ($5.8 million), Maryland ($5.7 million), Michigan ($3 million), Minnesota ($3.3 million), Ohio ($5.7 million), Pennsylvania ($4 million), South Carolina ($5.8 million), Tennessee ($3.2 million), and Wisconsin ($3.1 million).

The grants were made under the Educational Technical Assistance Act of 2002, Title II of the statute that created IES. All 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia were eligible to apply, and IES received 45 applications.

The winnings states reportedly were chosen in a competition based on the merit of their proposals. Proposals were assessed based on aspects such as the need for the project, the quality of the project’s design, and the quality of the management plan, ED said.

Links:

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

Council of Chief State School Officers
http://www.ccsso.org

Center on Education Policy
http://www.cep-dc.org

CEP report: “States Test Limits of Federal AYP Flexibility”
http://www.cep-dc.org/fededprograms/FederalAYPFlexibility/StateAccountabilityPlanReport.pdf

Institute of Education Sciences
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ies/index.html