ELEMENTARY & SECONDARY EDUCATION
Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
March 20, 2008
Archived Information


March 20, 2008

Letter to Chief State School Officers (individually addressed)

Dear (name):

In January 2007, I put forward a plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This plan, Building on Results, is designed to improve accountability by providing additional flexibility for innovation while working toward grade-level proficiency for all students in reading and mathematics by 2014. While the discussion to reauthorize NCLB continues, I know from my conversations with state and local leaders and policymakers across the country that some commonsense changes are needed to build upon those that have been implemented since my speech at Mount Vernon in 2005. One change would provide states with flexibility to create a more nuanced way of distinguishing between schools in need of intensive intervention, and those that are closer to meeting their goals so that they can direct limited resources to the schools that need them the most. This concept has been widely discussed in Congress and among the states.

On March 18, I announced a pilot project that provides an opportunity for states to propose their own methods for categorizing identified schools and determining the interventions required for each category. To participate in the pilot, states must commit to build their own capacity for school reform, take the most significant actions for the lowest-performing schools, and use data to determine the method of differentiation. My hope is that this "differentiated accountability" pilot will lead to a variety of approaches to differentiation, which can add to the conversations on reauthorization and inform school improvement practices in general.

In short, this pilot will allow states the flexibility to focus more precisely their technical assistance and interventions (under section 1116 of ESEA) on schools with the greatest need. The states' proposals should promote meaningful reform in schools, provide options for parents and students, and improve teacher effectiveness. The pilot will not allow states to lessen the focus on all students reaching grade-level proficiency in reading and mathematics or circumvent the requirements to fix struggling schools. It will require a state's current measurement of adequate yearly progress (AYP) (under section 1111 of ESEA) to be retained or made more rigorous and would not allow it to be diluted through this process.

Allowing states to experiment with differentiated accountability makes sense for several reasons. First, not all schools identified for improvement are the same. For example, of the schools identified for improvement in 2005-06, 56 percent were identified as in need of improvement due to the low achievement of the "all students" group, indicating a widespread problem in the school, while 14 percent of schools were identified because of the low achievement of a single subgroup.1 Under a differentiated accountability approach, as the extent of the problems leading to a school's identification differs, so should the type of interventions. Second, some states and districts have a large percentage of their schools identified for improvement, corrective action, and restructuring, which affects their capacity to provide meaningful reforms. This is particularly true for states and districts with a large number of schools in the restructuring phase of the improvement timeline. Differentiated accountability will assist those states by allowing them to target resources and interventions to those schools most in need of intensive interventions and significant reform.

States that wish to use differentiated accountability as part of their NCLB accountability system must submit a proposal that demonstrates that they are meeting the "bright line principles" of NCLB: improving achievement and narrowing achievement gaps by holding schools and districts accountable for results using annual assessments; providing real choice for parents; ensuring that parents have accurate and meaningful information about their children's schools; and improving teacher quality. To that end, a state must describe how it meets the state eligibility criteria and the ten core principles listed below. The proposal must successfully explain how the model ensures meaningful reform for schools (individually and as a system) and would lead to all students being proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. States may propose a differentiated accountability system for schools, districts, or both.

State Eligibility Criteria
To be eligible to participate in the differentiated accountability pilot, a state must meet the following criteria:
1. The state's standards and assessment system must be fully approved as administered in the 2007-08 school year.
2. The state must have no significant outstanding monitoring findings related to NCLB requirements. We will also take into consideration significant outstanding monitoring findings related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
3. The state must have a plan for meeting the requirements in NCLB for highly qualified teachers that has been approved by the Department of Education (Department).
4. The state must provide timely and transparent adequate yearly progress (AYP) information to the public. States that have more than one unapproved occurrence of late AYP notification in the past two years are not eligible.

Core Principles of Differentiated Accountability Models
A state's proposal must address each of the ten core principles listed below. The principles are organized in four categories: accountability, differentiation, interventions, and restructuring.

Accountability: The state maintains its current practice for determining AYP and identifying schools as in need of improvement.
1. AYP determinations are made for all public schools in the state, as required by NCLB and as described in the state's accountability plan. The state's accountability system continues to hold schools accountable and ensure that all students are proficient by 2013-14.
2. The state provides the public with clear and understandable explanations of how AYP is calculated for its schools and districts, and how it ensures that all students are included in its accountability system.
3. Title I schools in the state continue to be identified for improvement as required by NCLB and as outlined in the state's accountability plan. However, the identification labels (i.e., schools in need of improvement, corrective action, restructuring) may be changed to reflect how interventions for schools are differentiated.

Differentiation: The state clearly defines its process for categorizing and differentiating among schools.
4. The method for differentiation of identified schools is technically and educationally sound, based upon robust data analysis, and uniform across the state. The differentiation of schools is based primarily on proficiency in reading and mathematics.
5. When transitioning to the differentiated accountability model, the state considers the current status of schools, including interventions previously implemented in schools and services provided to students.
6. The process for differentiation and the resulting interventions for schools in different categories or phases of differentiation are data-driven, understandable, and transparent to the public.

Interventions: The state clearly defines its system of interventions.
7. All identified schools receiving Title I funds are subject to interventions, and they progress through an intervention timeline with interventions increasing in intensity over time. The state describes its comprehensive system of interventions, including, if applicable, how its proposal aligns with its state accountability system.
8. Interventions are educationally sound. The state provides a rationale, including evidence of effectiveness, for each intervention proposed. The state explains how it will leverage state and local resources along with federal resources (e.g., Title I school improvement funds, Title II funds) to promote meaningful reform in schools, provide options for parents and students, and improve teacher effectiveness.
9. The differentiated accountability model is designed to result in an increased number of students participating, in the aggregate, in public school choice and supplemental educational services (SES) at the state level, even if the number of students eligible for these options decreases. If a state proposes to change the eligibility requirements for SES, these services are offered, at a minimum, to low-income non-proficient students in all Title I schools identified for improvement (no later than the timeline required by NCLB).

Restructuring (or alternate label): The state clearly defines the interventions for the lowest-performing schools.
10. There must be a category of differentiation for at least a subset of the lowest-performing schools that have not met annual achievement targets for five years (currently the restructuring category). This category of schools must be subject to the most significant and comprehensive interventions.

Priorities
Priority for participating in the pilot will be given to the following:
• States that have at least 20 percent of their Title I schools identified as in need of improvement in the 2007-08 school year and that demonstrate a challenge in providing meaningful, intensive reform to all their identified Title I schools. States that do not meet this 20 percent threshold and wish to apply must provide a justification for why there is a need for differentiated accountability.
• States that propose to take significant and comprehensive interventions, such as those used in the restructuring phase, for the lowest-performing schools earlier in the improvement timeline (i.e., earlier than after five years of missing annual achievement targets).
• States that propose an innovative model of differentiation and system of interventions. Within the bounds of the core principles above, we are interested in selecting a broad array of models for the pilot and will be looking for innovation, enhanced parental options, and strong accountability, combined with a rigorous approach to reform.

I understand that these principles and priorities set a high bar that not every state will be able to meet. However, this rigorous approach is the only way to balance the proposed flexibility of the pilot program with a continued focus on the "bright-line principles" of NCLB and the goal of universal proficiency by 2014.

Enclosed with this letter is a description of the process for states to submit proposals for this pilot along with details on the evidence that states must provide to demonstrate that their proposals meet each of the core principles. Given that our goal is to review each proposal and make a determination of which states can be approved to participate before the start of the 2008-09 school year, the submission deadline is May 2. The review process will closely resemble the process used for the growth model pilot. Proposals from states that meet the eligibility criteria will be reviewed by a panel of external experts and evaluated against the ten core principles. If you are unsure of your state's eligibility status, please contact Assistant Secretary Kerri Briggs prior to submitting your proposal.

Taking the peers' comments into consideration, I will approve up to ten states to enter into flexibility agreements under section 9401 of ESEA, which will permit them to implement their model of differentiated accountability for AYP determinations based on assessments administered in the 2007-08 school year and for interventions to be implemented in the 2008-09 school year. States will be approved to implement their models for up to four years (for example, in the case of a four-year pilot, the 2008-09 through 2011-12 school years) unless reauthorization of NCLB changes the requirements on which those models are based.

The Department will rigorously evaluate this pilot to determine its effectiveness in improving student achievement, annually review information on how it is working in each state, and share results with other states, policymakers, and the public to further inform the reauthorization of NCLB and school improvement practices in general. To that end, each approved state must provide data to the Department comparing its model with its current accountability system, and describing the interventions applied to schools and the effects of differentiating accountability on student achievement and school reform.

Please do not hesitate to contact Assistant Secretary Briggs with any additional questions or concerns. We look forward to working with you to implement innovative and effective methods to improve school accountability and raise student achievement.

  Sincerely,
 
/s/
  Margaret Spellings

Enclosure

1 Source: U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service, unpublished data from the Study of State Implementation of Accountability and Teacher Quality Under No Child Left Behind.



Enclosure

PROPOSALS FOR THE DIFFERENTIATED ACCOUNTABILITY PILOT PROGRAM


I. Process to Submit Proposals

When should a state submit its proposal? A state that wishes to incorporate differentiated accountability into its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability system should submit its proposal by May 2, 2008. States submitting a proposal should send it electronically to applications@ed.gov with attention to Assistant Secretary Kerri Briggs.

What is the approval process? Similar to the growth model review process, the Department of Education (Department) will review whether a state is eligible to participate in the pilot. Proposals from eligible states then will be reviewed by a panel of outside experts and evaluated against the ten core principles below, and the panel will make recommendations to the Secretary. If a state's proposal is approved by the Secretary, the final proposal must be electronically submitted to the Department as part of the state's amended accountability workbook. The Department will post each approved state's differentiated accountability plan on the Department's Web site so that it is readily accessible to the general public.

What are the eligibility criteria?
To be eligible to participate in the differentiated accountability pilot, a state must meet the following criteria:

1. Approved standards and assessment system. The state's standards and assessment system must be fully approved by the Department as administered in the 2007-08 school year. The State's standards and assessment system includes annual assessments in each of grades 3-8 and high school in both reading and mathematics (including alternate assessments). Additionally, in the 2007-08 school year, a state administers science assessments (including alternate assessments) once in each grade span (3-5, 6-9 and 10-12), includes all students in the assessments, and reports the results.

2. No significant outstanding monitoring findings. The state must have no significant outstanding monitoring findings related to NCLB requirements. We will also take into consideration significant outstanding monitoring findings related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

3. Approved highly qualified teacher plan. The state must have a plan for meeting the requirements in NCLB for highly qualified teachers that has been approved by the Department.

4. Timely AYP determinations. The state must provide timely and transparent adequate yearly progress (AYP) information to the public. States that have more than one unapproved occurrence of late AYP notification in the past two years are not eligible.

What is the flexibility agreement? A state that is approved to participate in the pilot program must enter into a flexibility agreement with the Department under section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as amended by NCLB. The flexibility agreement will be part of the Department's official approval letter. In the flexibility agreement, the Department may place reasonable conditions on the state in exchange for the flexibility granted to the state through the differentiated accountability pilot. As required by section 9401(b)(3)(A) of ESEA, within 30 days of being approved to participate in the pilot, the state must provide all interested school districts with notice of the flexibility agreement and a reasonable opportunity to comment, submit any comments to the Secretary, and provide notice and information to the public about the differentiated accountability model in the manner in which it customarily provides similar public notice.

How long does the flexibility agreement last? States will be approved to implement their models for up to four years (for example, in the case of a four-year pilot, the 2008-09 through 2011-12 school years) unless reauthorization of NCLB changes the requirements on which those models are based. States will be required to report annually on their progress, which the Department will review to determine that the state's differentiated accountability plan is implemented as proposed. The Department may terminate the flexibility agreement at any time for noncompliance with the agreement.

When can implementation begin? A state must first be notified by the Department in an approval letter before it implements its proposed differentiated accountability model.


II. Contents of Proposal

What should a state include in its proposal? A state's proposal should explain how it will incorporate differentiated accountability into its NCLB accountability system. The state should clearly and concisely describe its proposal, explaining how the proposal meets each of the ten core principles listed below. We will pay particular attention to how the state applies the most rigorous and comprehensive interventions to the lowest-performing schools. The state should also include evidence that illustrates how the proposal would be implemented, including how schools currently in the school improvement timeline would be affected by the proposed differentiated accountability model. Please limit the contents of your proposal to 30 pages (not including appendices) and the executive summary to five pages.

Accountability: The state maintains its current practice for determining AYP and identifying schools as in need of improvement.

Core Principle 1: AYP determinations are made for all public schools in the state, as required by NCLB and as described in the state's accountability plan. The state's accountability system continues to hold schools accountable and ensure that all students are proficient by 2013-14. The proposal must provide an assurance and a description about how this core principle is met. Note: this pilot does not allow for any of the requirements in section 1111 of ESEA to be waived.

Core Principle 2: The state provides the public with clear and understandable explanations of how AYP is calculated for its schools and districts, and how it ensures that all students are included in its accountability system. The proposal must describe the following:
• The components of the state's AYP definition (e.g., full academic year definition, minimum "n" size) and any statistical adjustments used in calculating AYP (e.g., multiyear averaging, the use of a performance index, confidence intervals, standard error of measurement).
• How the state provides transparent and easily accessible information to the public about how AYP is calculated.

Core Principle 3: Title I schools in the state continue to be identified for improvement as required by NCLB and as outlined in the state's accountability plan. However, the identification labels (i.e., schools in need of improvement, corrective action, restructuring) may be changed to reflect how interventions for schools are differentiated. The proposal must give an assurance and a description about how this core principle is met. Note: schools and districts identified for improvement may not be limited to only those schools and districts that did not make AYP because the same subgroup did not meet the annual measurable objective in the same subject or the same other academic indicator for two consecutive years.

Differentiation: The state clearly defines its process for categorizing and differentiating among schools.

Core Principle 4: The method of differentiation of identified schools is technically and educationally sound, based upon robust data analysis, and uniform across the state. The differentiation of schools is based primarily on proficiency in reading and mathematics. In describing the method that the State proposes to use to differentiate the identified schools and districts that need interventions, the proposal must include:
• The criteria that will be used to distinguish between different categories (e.g., between "targeted" and "comprehensive") or phases (e.g., from "improvement" to "restructuring") of intervention and what these different categories or phases would be called.
• A description and a detailed example of how a school would move between different categories of intervention.
• A description and detailed example of how a school would move from one phase of intervention to another, including how a school would exit each phase of intervention.
• A description of how the state considers or reviews student achievement in reading and mathematics when determining a school's category or phase of intervention.
• An explanation of how the state's method of differentiation does not systematically allow for a particular subgroup that repeatedly misses targets over time to be in the least rigorous category of differentiation.
• If the model would apply additional academic indicators1 (e.g., science assessments or academic improvement over time) to differentiate among schools, evidence that the indicators:
(1) Are valid, reliable, uniform statewide, and applicable to all students within a particular grade span (note that the indicators may differ for high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools); and
(2) Are used only to refine distinctions between schools with similar performance in reading and mathematics.
• A description of the criteria the state will use to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the proposed model.

Data analyses for Core Principle 4
• Provide the data analyses that were used to determine the state's proposed method of differentiation.
• Provide an analysis, using prior-year data as necessary, on the academic achievement of schools in each category and phase of improvement including data disaggregated by subgroups, the number and percent of schools in urban versus rural localities, large versus small student enrollments, and other key demographic variables based on the state's model of differentiation.
• Provide evidence, including any available statistical modeling, to support the rationale for the proposed method. Provide any available empirical evidence in the form of research or case studies to provide a justification for the method and need for differentiated accountability.

Core Principle 5: When transitioning to the differentiated accountability model, the state considers the current status of schools, including interventions previously implemented in schools and services provided to students. Describe the state's plan to transition to the proposed differentiated accountability model. Include information on the following:
• How the proposed plan considers the current status of a school (e.g., how a school will transition from corrective action in 2007-08 to a new phase under the differentiated accountability model in 2008-09 without starting over in the intervention timeline).
• How the state will ensure that students participating in public school choice (PSC) and supplemental educational services (SES) during the 2007-08 school year will continue to have those options available to them during the transition, even if they would not be eligible under the state's proposed differentiated accountability model.

Core Principle 6: The process for differentiation and the resulting interventions for schools in different categories or phases of differentiation are data-driven, understandable, and transparent to the public. Describe how the proposed model ensures that:
• The process for differentiation and the resulting interventions are data-driven and understandable.
• Schools are identified and their status is reported publicly, as required by NCLB and as outlined in the state's accountability plan.

Interventions: The state clearly defines its system of interventions.

Core Principle 7: All identified schools receiving Title I funds are subject to interventions, and they progress through an intervention timeline with interventions increasing in intensity over time. The state describes its comprehensive system of interventions, including, if applicable, how its proposal aligns with its state accountability system. Provide descriptions of:
• The interventions that will be implemented in each category and phase of improvement.
• How the state's comprehensive system of interventions being proposed aligns with and builds on its own system of interventions if applicable.
• The intervention timeline (i.e., how and when the interventions applied will increase in rigor).
• How the interventions reflect the academic achievement of the schools and how schools that do not increase achievement in reading/language arts and mathematics will progress through the intervention timeline.
• How the state's comprehensive system of interventions does not systematically apply the least rigorous interventions to a particular subgroup that repeatedly misses targets over time.
• How the state would ensure that effective teachers are in the schools needing the most significant interventions and how the state would target resources to improve the effectiveness of teachers.

Core Principle 8: Interventions must be educationally sound. The state provides a rationale, including evidence of effectiveness, for each intervention proposed. The state explains how it will leverage state and local resources along with federal resources (e.g., Title I school improvement funds, Title II funds) to promote meaningful reform in schools, provide options for parents and students, and improve teacher effectiveness. Include the following information:
• A rationale for each proposed intervention.
• The research or evidence of effectiveness supporting the proposed interventions.
• An explanation of how the state would leverage its resources to increase state and local capacity to ensure rigorous support for consistently underperforming schools. Explain how the proposed plan will leverage school improvement funds received under section 1003(g) of ESEA, and Title II funds to provide targeted assistance, particularly to those schools receiving the most intensive interventions.
• Whether the state uses or proposes to use the transferability provision (section 6123 of ESEA) to better target resources.
• How the statewide system of support will be used or improved.
• How the state would build its own capacity, as well as the capacity of its districts, to work with low-performing schools.

Core Principle 9: The differentiated accountability model is designed to result in an increased number of students participating, in the aggregate, in PSC and SES at the state level, even if the number of students eligible for these options decreases. If a state proposes to change the eligibility requirements for SES, these services are offered, at a minimum, to low-income non-proficient students in all Title I schools identified for improvement (no later than the timeline required by NCLB). Provide information regarding the following:
• The eligibility criteria for SES, if different from the requirements in NCLB.
• The steps the state plans to take to improve student participation in SES and PSC.

Restructuring (or alternate label): The state clearly defines the interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

Core Principle 10: There must be a category of differentiation for at least a subset of the lowest-performing schools that have not met annual achievement targets for five years (currently the restructuring category). This category of schools must be subject to the most significant and comprehensive interventions. Include information on the following:
• How the state ensures that interventions for the lowest-performing schools are the most rigorous (i.e., the first four restructuring options listed in section 1116(b)(8)(B) of ESEA - reopening the school as a public charter school, replacing all or most of the school staff, entering into a contract with an entity to operate the public school, turning the operation of the school over to the State educational agency - or other options that are demonstrated to be at least as rigorous as these four options).
• How the state ensures that the intervention timeline for the lowest performing schools is at least as rigorous as outlined in NCLB (i.e., after five years of missing annual achievement targets).
• How a school would move out of the group of schools receiving the most significant and comprehensive interventions.
• If the state proposes to take significant and comprehensive interventions, such as those in the restructuring phase, for the lowest-performing schools earlier in the improvement timeline (i.e., earlier than after five years of missing annual achievement targets), describe that timeline.
• If the state proposes to limit the number of schools that receive the most significant and comprehensive interventions, provide a justification for that limit and describe the interventions for the other schools in restructuring.
• How the state has worked with its districts to ensure that the districts can implement the interventions for the lowest-performing schools.


III. Reporting and evaluation

Reporting: The state must annually report to the Department information about the implementation and outcomes of the proposed model. This report must include data comparing its model to the existing accountability system, the interventions applied to schools, and the effects of differentiating accountability on student achievement and school reform. The Department will annually determine whether the state's differentiated accountability plan is implemented as proposed.

Evaluation: The Department will rigorously evaluate this pilot to determine its effectiveness in improving student achievement, annually review information on how it is working in each state, and share results with other states, policymakers, and the public in an effort to further inform reauthorization of NCLB and school improvement practices in general.

1 The additional academic indicators that may be used to differentiate schools are not the same as the "other academic indicators" used to determine AYP, as required in section 1111 of ESEA.


 
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Last Modified: 03/24/2008