Last week, 11 states applied for waivers from many of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s most onerous provisions. Their applications are now online, ready to be sliced and diced by any willing wonk. (Anne Hyslop of Education Sector has already taken a cut.) We at Fordham have tried to make the task a little bit easier by posting two compilations: First, the Common Core implementation plans for all 11 states, and second, all of their accountability proposals. Both are huge files but if your plans this weekend include a lot of downtime, have at ‘em.

Personally, I’m most interested in the states’ plans around accountability. Partly that’s because this is the only part of this waiver process that I find legitimate and legal; the Department of Education has no business demanding that states adopt and implement the Common Core standards or rigorous teacher evaluations. But if it’s going to allow states to opt-out of the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress system, it certainly has the right to set boundaries around the alternatives. And partly it’s because the major sticking point in the current negotiations over ESEA reauthorization comes down to accountability, and how much leeway to give the states.

So what do these 11 states want to do differently on the accountability front? Particularly when it comes to identifying schools that should be subject to some sort of sanctions or interventions? Here’s what the future holds if the Department of Education gives its assent:

1. A deadline for getting all kids to “proficiency” will go the way of the dinosaur. None of the states opted to set a deadline for universal proficiency. A few agreed to reduce the number of not-yet-proficient students by 50 percent over the next six years, but most developed their own twist on “annual measurable objectives.”

2. A focus on growth will eclipse the need for “subgroup accountability.” Models such as the one proposed by Colorado would set “annual measurable objectives” at the kid-level. Schools would be expected to help all students make enough progress to get them to a college-and-career ready standard by high school. (For high achieving students who are already approaching this standard, schools would be held accountable for making sure they grow at least a year’s worth of learning every year.) This is exactly the right concept–have a real-live standard (college readiness) and ask schools to aim at getting all kids to it by graduation. That will require making the most rapid progress for the students who are furthest behind. Since those kids are more likely to be poor and from minority groups, it makes subgroup accountability per se unnecessary. (Though the Administration’s guidelines still require it.)

3. Subjects beyond reading and math will count again. Seven of the states are taking the opportunity to expand the subjects included in their accountability systems. Colorado will look at writing, science, and ACT results; Florida will add writing and science; Georgia will include science and social studies for grades 3-8 and a whole suite of exit exams for high school; Kentucky and Oklahoma add science, social studies, and writing; and Massachusetts and Tennessee will both add science to the mix. This should be helpful in counteracting the narrowing of the curriculum.

In other words, the states are presenting sensible alternatives to the antiquated Adequate Yearly Progress model. That doesn’t prove that “states are good” and “the feds are bad.” On the contrary, it just shows that our thinking and technology around accountability have improved over the ten years since NCLB was enacted. But it does lay down a challenge to Arne Duncan, his peer reviewers, and his team: Say yes to these proposals or be  accused of a “Washington knows best” mentality.

-Mike Petrilli

This post also appears on Flypaper.

Last updated November 23, 2011