Back in August, Dropout Nation explained how Oklahoma could have avoided losing its No Child waiver if it had simply moved quickly on validating the curricula standards to which it reverted after voting in May to ditch implementation of Common Core. As you may remember, conservative reformers who support Common Core such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli were particularly annoyed that the Obama Administration dared to hold the Sooner State accountable for not fulfilling the promise of having college- and career-ready curricula standards in place as a condition of the waiver. They were also needlessly worried that the move would allow opponents of Common Core to portray implementation of the standards as a federal initiative.
Yet as I noted, Oklahoma could have easily kept its waiver if not for its own incompetence. More importantly, the state would likely regain the No Child waiver once the old standards, Priority Academic Student Skills, were labeled college- and-career ready. Which is what is starting to happen. Last week, the Sooner State’s higher education board validated PASS standards as college- and career-ready. Outgoing Supt. Janet Barresi announced it is submitting its No Child waiver proposal — essentially a rehash of its old plan with the PASS standards in place — and hopes for federal approval by year-end in order to avoid having to deal with telling districts and schools whether their schools are in need of improvement under No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision.
Yet the question remains: Should Oklahoma get a new No Child waiver? Your editor would argue no just on the principle that Obama Administration’s entire gambit has been a bungled exercise in policymaking that has weakened systemic reform and . But that alone isn’t enough, especially since the administration has gone ahead and renewed waivers for six other states in the past two months. Particularly in the case of Oklahoma, the state shouldn’t get another waiver because it has proven that is incapable of actually fulfilling any of its promises.
This reality was made clear two years ago when the Obama Administration’s panel reviewing No Child waiver proposals raised numerous questions about Oklahoma’s plan. They were concerned that the A-to-F grading system it was planning to implement because Sooner State officials left several elements of the plan — including how much graduation rates would make up in the underlying calculation — were still “to be determined”, and didn’t include a student achievement growth model that would reward or hold schools and districts accountable for their work with kids in their care. In fact, the lack of a fully-developed grading program was so glaring that reviewers couldn’t determine if it would pass muster. [Let’s note the fact that A-to-F grading has proven so far to be not ready for prime time.]
Peer reviewers were also concerned that Oklahoma’s Annual Measurable Objectives only included data from kids enrolled during the first 10 days of a school year, leaving out crucial data on kids who may start attending afterward. Meanwhile the state’s plan for identifying so-called Focus schools, or those with wide achievement gaps, was criticized for obscuring data on achievement gaps for subgroups who are minorities in otherwise homogeneous schools. Essentially districts and schools can do poorly by, say, American Indian kids (who make up 17 percent of the Sooner State’s student population) and still not be held accountable for how they fail to work with the most-vulnerable of children.
As I noted back in August, many of these concerns expressed by peer reviewers have come to pass. As Bellwether Education’s Anne Hyslop noted last year in a study for the New America Foundation on the No Child waivers, 54 percent of Oklahoma schools previously identified under the law as needs improvement were allowed to escape scrutiny under the new accountability system developed under the waiver. Eighty-five schools likely serving 32,448 kids (or 4.8 percent of the state’s student population) were likely performing poorly, but went unidentified.
Meanwhile the failure of Sooner State leaders to quickly validate the old PASS standards as college- and career-ready is just one example of its ineptitude in handling education governance. Last month, preparations for a series of high school tests scheduled for December were delayed when McGraw-Hill’s CTB division withdrew from administering them. The snafu was caused by the state board of education’s decision to not approve a contract with the firm, a move driven by earlier ire over McGraw-Hill’s earlier mishandling of other assessments. [State officials approved a new vendor last week.] On one side, you can blame the state board for waiting way too late to kibosh the contract; the board should also take responsibility for not adequately telling Barresi to select any vendor other than McGraw-Hill. Yet blame must also be heaped upon Barresi and her staff for insisting on choosing a vendor who was already viewed negatively for its failures on handling state testing, and thus, wasn’t likely to get another contract approval.
Given Oklahoma’s record as of late, no one should reasonably expect its officials to properly execute any No Child waiver proposal. When you consider that the plan it had successfully submitted (and will put before the Obama Administration again) hardly merited approval in the first place, there is no way that the administration should grant that waiver. Especially when you consider the yawning achievement gaps between white and minority children.
Between 2003 and 2013, the gap in average scale scores in math between white fourth-graders and their Native schoolmates decreased by a mere two points (from 10 points to eight points), according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the gap between white fourth-graders and their black and Latino peers increased by one point (from 25 points to 26 points between white and blacks, and from 15 to 16 between white and Latino kids). While Oklahoma has done better than the nation in narrowing the gap for Native students (the nation’s achievement gap actually increased by three points, from 20 points to 23), it hasn’t done nearly as the rest of the country in improving education for black and Latino kids. Under the circumstances, allowing Oklahoma to return to using A-to-F grading and other approaches that ignore achievement gaps only condemns poor and minority kids to low expectations and even worse educational malpractice.
The Obama Administration would certainly benefit politically from granting Oklahoma a new New Child waiver. After all, it could (but not likely will) calm down criticism from Republicans, movement conservatives, and conservative-oriented Common Core foes about the entire waiver gambit being federal overreach. But it shouldn’t. Oklahoma’s plan, shoddy as it was (and will be) won’t be fulfilled to any satisfaction. And Sooner State children would be better off with the state being under No Child’s far-superior accountability rules.