NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Grading the No Child Left Behind Waivers

February 20, 2014

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed in 2001, creating a national accountability structure to hold schools responsible for student achievement. But in 2012, the Department of Education established a waiver program, allowing states to create their own accountability systems instead. The idea behind accountability systems is that teachers will be motivated to teach specified content and improve the quality of their instruction. However, while these systems have sometimes demonstrated positive impacts on student learning, they have also had some unintended consequences, say researchers with the American Enterprise Institute.

Using four criteria -- construct validity, reliability, fairness and transparency -- the authors evaluated NCLB and the state NCLB waivers to determine which aspects of the systems were strong and which ones were ineffective.

  • Construct validity is the extent to which performance measures actually measure student performance. Student test scores, for example, are used as proxies for achievement. NCLB earned an F in this respect, as its testing solely focused on math and English language arts (ELA) proficiency, narrowing curriculum down to only those two subjects.
  • Reliability (that is, the consistency of performance classifications from year to year) earned a B. Schools that scored poorly and failed to make adequate progress in one year tended to continue to score poorly, indicating that the measurement was consistent.
  • Fairness, the extent to which performance ratings were associated with features outside of the school's control, earned an F. A fair system should only assess factors within the school's control. Comparing schools with similar student populations, rather than all schools across the board, would better ensure that schools serving low-income, disadvantaged students, for example, were not disproportionately targeted.
  • Transparency, the extent to which accountability measures are understandable and the process for creating them is clearly documented, earned a C.

As of October of 2013, 43 state NCLB waivers were approved and three were still under review. The study graded the waivers along the same scale as the NCLB standards.

  • The waivers earned a C for construct validity. While performance measures were superior, in general, the quality of the waivers ranged widely.
  • Waiver reliability earned a C minus. The waivers used models to measure student growth, which -- while they enhance construct reliability -- actually reduce reliability.
  • The waiver plans received a D plus for fairness. Much like the NCLB system, they are biased against schools that serve disadvantaged populations.
  • Like the NCLB system, the waivers also earned a C for transparency. While the waiver grading systems appear more transparent than NCLB, they still have problems, and it is not clear that the schools labeled as "proficient" under the various state waiver systems are actually effective.

Source: Morgan S. Polikoff et al., "Grading the No Child Left Behind Waivers," American Enterprise Institute, February 12, 2014.


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