Texas' No Child Left Behind Problem

Texas' No Child Left Behind Problem

Indiana recently made headlines by signing legislation to dump the Common Core State Standards. Already, Dr. Sandra Stotsky has questioned if Indiana is replacing the Common Core with the Common Core–one of the program’s most outspoken critics. She was also the English Language Arts (ELA) expert on the validation committee who refused to sign off on the standards calling them inferior and shady. It is a fair question, one that Breitbart News also raised in the article “First State to Ditch Common Core Standards or Will Hoosiers Simply ‘Rebrand?'”  

The Lone Star State never signed onto the federal mandate but as of now, Texas and Indiana share something very important in common that may be driving their state education narratives -a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver.

The NCLB was the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The NCLB was a law that was approved by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. Among its requirements, schools had to test students for proficiency each year in reading and math in grades 3-8, then once during high school. The objective was to have all students proficient by 2014.There were penalties for not meeting these and other often unattainable goals. One of the biggest criticisms of NCLB was that it was “teaching to the test.” Enter the NCLB waiver, created by the Obama Administration to release a state from the NCLB requirements. The NCLB waiver is sometimes called ESEA Flexibility, which can sound misleading because when NCLB waivers refer to granting additional flexibility–this does not mean unconditional flexibility–it means the specific flexibility from being held accountable to the mandates set forth under NCLB.

In 2012, Truth in American Education pointed out that states had been clamoring for NCLB waivers but they “come with strings attached.” They also cited a New York Times article to further illustrate this point: “In exchange for the education waivers, schools and districts must promise to set new targets aimed at preparing students for colleges and careers. They must also tether evaluations of teachers and schools in part to student achievement on standardized tests. The use of tests to judge teacher effectiveness is a departure from No Child Left Behind, which used test scores to rate schools and districts.” Today, 43 states have NCLB waivers. 

Similarly, Education Week noted NCLB waiver concerns, commenting “it doesn’t mean (a state) will be able to avoid the reams of student achievement data reporting required by the law…waivers states, who have created brand new accountability systems, don’t have to do less reporting. They actually have to do more.”

Perhaps, more disconcerting is that the NCLB waiver is something that has been criticized as one of the gateways to the Common Core because the standards a state must sign onto are essentially the same standards or mirror this Fed Led Ed with or without the Common Core.

Breitbart Texas reported on legislation that banned Common Core, although Common Core textbooks and learning materials continue to pop up in Texas schools. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams told Breitbart Texas recently this has happened because the textbook companies are selling to the largest market. These days, that market ascribes to the Common Core; however, he asserted that does not mean Texas is part of Common Core.

Still, when Texas initially applied for a waiver, the Heritage Foundry warned Texas to steer clear of an NCLB waiver because “in order to receive a waiver, states must agree to adopt the Administration’s preferred policies, the most concerning of these being Common Core education standards.” 

At the time, Texas Education Agency (TEA) spokeswoman Deborah Ratcliffe defended the NCLB waiver by saying, “this allows us to define the waiver request without agreeing to the strings that were attached to the NCLB waiver.”

The waiver Texas applied for was supposed to be a little different. It was a general waiver that was to relax the federal Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards although that would not force the state to follow all of the Department of Education’s rules, according to Jeremy Ayers, associate director of federal education programs for the American Center for Progress. 

However, Breitbart News reported on March 16, 2014 that the Indiana legislation requires new standards must still qualify the state for a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and align with college entrance exams–has this been any different for no Common Core Texas? 

Texas high school students take the same federally mandated college entrance exams as their Common Core peers and are on a college and career readiness track that shares a lot of similarities to the national standard which Breitbart Texas reported.  

Interestingly, the NCLB waiver Texas was granted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on September 30, 2013 stipulated four clear requirements: (1) demonstrated that it has college and career-ready expectations for all students; (2) developed and demonstrated that it has a high-quality plan to implement a system of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support for all Title I districts and schools in the State; (3) committed to developing, adopting, piloting, and implementing teacher and principal evaluation and support systems that support student achievement; and (4) provided an assurance that it will evaluate and revise its administrative requirements to reduce duplication and unnecessary burden on districts and schools. This approval decision is also based on Texas’ assurance that it will meet these four principles by implementing the high-quality plans and other elements described in its request and in accordance with the required time lines.

The four points in the Texas waiver approval letter from Secretary Duncan are the same four points verbatim as are in Duncan’s NCLB waiver approval letter to the state of Indiana dated February 9, 2012. In fact, it is the same four points found in state NCLB waiver form letters to other states archived on the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA flexibility webpage. 

What Texas applied for and what Texas received, according to Education Week, was an NCLB waiver with a lot of concessions in an article entitled “Texas Wins NCLB Waiver After a lot of Concessions.”  They said, “The state had to scrap its own state accountability system in favor of one that aligns with federal requirements. It also had to redo student achievement goals; now, schools must work toward 100 percent student proficiency by 2019-20.  That goal was one of the three options the Education Department offered states for setting new achievement goals.” The article also noted that Texas agreed to toughen what it takes for the bottom-performing 15 percent of all Title I schools in the state (priority and focus schools) to shed those designations and close the achievement gap or graduation rate by 50 percent.

According to the Texas Tribune, only the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools would be subject to a series of federally prescribed interventions under the waiver and struggling school districts would also no longer be required to set aside 20 percent of their funding for remedial tutoring services. 

Thus, for the preliminary 2013-14 waiver, TEA agreed to continue to solicit input about how best to include student growth in evaluations, including the possibility of weighing performance on statewide tests at 20 percent of a teacher’s assessment, also according to the Texas Tribune. Likewise, TEA would need to figure out the factors to use to determine the bottom 15 percent of school districts.

Ultimately, Texas was granted a waiver with the understanding that the state would meet the same conditions in the exact verbiage written into approval letters for Indiana and all those other NCLB waiver states.  Education Week commented, “Texas wasn’t completely celebratory.” 

The resulting waiver may not have been along the philosophical lines that the commissioner put forth that “Texans know what’s best for Texas schools.”

After Texas received its ESEA Flexibility, in 2013, even Politico weighed in  on the resulting waiver, noting that “Texas made big changes to accommodate the government’s wishes. It set some very ambitious goals it most likely wouldn’t have outside its quest for a waiver.” They cited Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who criticized Texas for what he called “buckling before the federal government in applying for the waiver at all.” 

Still, the bigger picture to emerge is to what degree Texas or any state now answers to the federal government under an NCLB waiver. Breitbart Texas spoke to Ratcliffe on how Texas, a non-Common Core state, is meeting the federal accountability requirements of its NCLB waiver. 

She said, “Texas was the first state to develop and implement college and career readiness curriculum standards, the first state to assess those standards, and is the first state to implement an accountability system to hold schools accountable for preparing students for postsecondary success. So we’ve had no trouble meeting this requirement.”

However, in 2013, the new College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) and high school graduation requirements were signed into law during the 83rd Legislature under House Bill 5 (HB 5) which are not the same as those established by TEA in 2010. College and career readiness is a powerful driver of the NCLB waiver. Texas did not adopt Common Core but HB 5 reconfigured the state’s existing college and career readiness standards into what appears to be more of an alignment with the federal high school graduation requirements in a Common Core state. 

How much might the NCLB waiver influence Texas’ new CCRS through the state’s federal accountability reporting system?

Ratcliffe told Breitbart Texas that another purpose of the waiver was to eliminate the two conflicting, accountability and intervention. The state now reports solely under one federal system of accountability based on the criteria of the waiver ending AYP ratings reporting, which is one of the conditions removed under an NCLB waiver.

Ratcliffe then added, “We have tried to mirror the state and federal standards as much as possible.”

At the end of the day, what is driving education policy in Texas may be a question Indiana finds itself asking. It remains to be seen if vehicles like the NCLB waiver help or helplessly harness a non-Common Core state into a lot more Fed Led Ed.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom

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