An Underwhelming Response

Under what seems like increasing Congressional pressure, Secretary Spellings has now promised to stop approving AYP gimmicks in the future and to gather state and local officials together three months from now to talk about it some more. That's it. There's no promise of any immediate action to roll back unwarranted n-sizes or rein in confidence intervals, or even a review of past approvals. The only crumb of action is news, tucked into a footnote of the letter Spellings sent the Committee Tuesday night (see below), is that the Department is seeking to ban states from continuing to have larger n-sizes for ELL and SPED kids than for other kids.


The AP article is here (Agency to Examine 'No Child' Loophole).

The letter from Spellings to McKeon can be found here.

The Simon testimony is here:


Before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Good morning. Chairman McKeon, Congressman Miller and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me today to discuss the No Child Left Behind Act and the state accountability systems on which it relies. We start off in agreement. We agree with the Chairman that the law has been a “positive step forward for students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers.” And we agree with Congressman Miller that the law “is making a difference.” I hope my testimony will be useful as you consider its reauthorization.

You deserve to know whether the No Child Left Behind Act is working as intended. I am here to report that it is. Across the country, test scores in reading and math in the early grades are rising, and the “achievement gap” is finally beginning to close. Students once left behind, I am pleased to say, are now leading the way, making some of the fastest progress.

We know this because No Child Left Behind measures the academic performance of all students through testing. And we know it because the law breaks down these results by student subgroup—African American, Hispanic, students with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient and more.

This disaggregation of data, as it’s known, is at the heart of the law. It shines a bright light of accountability on our schools for all parents and taxpayers to see. And it allows teachers to catch students before they fall behind.

To see where we are today, it’s important to know where we came from. Prior to the law’s passage, schools were not held accountable for the performance of student subgroups. Only a handful were disaggregating data for SOME students for accountability purposes. Reading/language arts and math assessments were only required three times in a student’s entire K-12 education. And some states did not participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

All that has changed. Today, parents know more, teachers know more, Congress knows more and the U.S. Department of Education knows more. Every state and the District of Columbia has a school accountability plan, reading and math assessments, and data broken down by subgroup. We are light-years ahead of where we were five years ago.

This data is helping us determine whether we’re making adequate yearly progress toward our primary mission: all students at grade level in reading and math by 2014.

This effort depends on valid and reliable accountability systems that accurately reflect student performance while protecting student privacy. The No Child Left Behind Act allows states to set a minimum number in defining a student subgroup, called an “n-size.” Congress recognized the need to ensure accuracy and avoid distortions when, to quote the law, “the number of students in a category is insufficient to yield statistically reliable information.”

This numerical floor varies from state to state. Most states use an n-size of about 30-40 students per school. Taken together, about 25 million more students are currently accounted for—a huge increase over pre-NCLB levels.

But the question naturally arises: due to n-sizes alone, are there some students being left behind? The answer is no. Even when, say, only four Hispanic students are enrolled in a school, those students’ test scores may, depending on the student, be counted in a second, third or fourth subgroup—such as Limited English Proficient or economically disadvantaged—that exceeds the n-size minimum. Their scores are also counted toward the school district’s performance in that subgroup.

Finally, and most importantly, in schools such as Frankford Elementary in Delaware and Centennial Place Elementary represented by Principal Kuhlman with us today, their scores are reviewed individually by teachers. These teachers, and those in thousands of other schools across the country that have truly adopted the mission of No Child Left Behind, use test results to guide instruction and use their individual and collective creativity to focus with laser-like precision to tap the strengths and identify the weaknesses of each child.

Thus, the law, with built-in redundancies partnering with creative teachers, enable us to get as close to 100 percent accountability as we possibly can.

It is a delicate balancing act to develop a state accountability system that’s both valid and reliable —or, put another way, fair and accurate. The good news is that as the number of students tested has risen, achievement data has become more reliable.

This is why we have taken a firm stance against calls to increase n-size minimums, approving just one state’s request so far this year. We want to ensure that children are counted in every possible way.

Our decisions also take into account the reliability of a state’s system for reporting and collecting data. In many states, this infrastructure is still being built and aligned with the law. I thank Congress for providing tens of millions of dollars in grants for this effort. The Department is building and improving its own data system, called EdFacts, and we will share what works as we go along.

Our goal is to work closely with states to maximize the inclusion of students in all subgroups while maintaining public confidence in accountability. To this end, the Department is planning to host a national technical assistance conference later this year for state assessment and accountability directors, in concert with our Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Centers. With full testing under NCLB now underway, we will work with states to acquire new impact data on school and student inclusion rates and discuss with them a process for justifying how their specific n-size is necessary for valid and reliable results.

The Secretary is also finalizing the creation of an NCLB sounding board, which will be made up of local and state educators, concerned advocates (such as business people) and researchers. The purpose of this board is to request feedback on NCLB implementation. One of the first issues, Secretary Spellings will have this board discuss and offer their perspectives on is the issue of n-size and how the Department and states can ensure that schools are held accountable to the maximum extent possible for student achievement.

In the meantime, we will continue to follow the core principles of No Child Left Behind as we help states leverage the law into improved academic performance. And, I know I speak for the Secretary when I say that we look forward to collaborating with Congress as well.

Thank you, and I will be happy to answer any questions.


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