June 30, 2006
Honorable Douglas D. Christensen
Commissioner of Education
Nebraska Department of Education
301 Centennial Mall, South, 6th Floor
P.O. Box 94987
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509-4987
Dear Commissioner Christensen:
Thank you for your participation in the U.S. Department of Education's (Department) standards and assessment peer review process under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). I appreciate the efforts required to prepare for the peer review. As you know, with the implementation of NCLB's accountability provisions, each school, district, and State is held accountable for making adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards having all students proficient by 2013-14. An assessment system that produces valid and reliable results is fundamental to a State's accountability system.
Also, thank you for the opportunity to come to Nebraska on April 20-21, 2006 to witness first hand the work of teachers and districts to develop local assessments and continuously use assessment results to improve student learning. Further, our follow-up meeting on April 25, 2006 in Washington DC allowed the Department to understand the steps Nebraska has taken, and plans to take, to improve the technical quality of the Nebraska assessment system. I am writing to follow up on these meetings and on the peer reviews of Nebraska's standards and assessment system, which occurred on September 23-25, 2005 and June 9, 2006. The results of this peer review process indicate that additional evidence is necessary for Nebraska to meet the statutory and regulatory requirements of Section 1111(b)(1) and (3) of the ESEA.
At the outset, it is important to emphasize that the Department fully supports local assessment models as allowed in both the statute and regulations. However, the statute and regulations also require that we hold these local assessment systems to the same rigorous standards as statewide assessments.
On April 24, 2006, the Department laid out new approval categories in a letter to the Chief State School Officers. These categories better reflect where States collectively are in the process of meeting the statutory standards and assessment requirements and where each State individually stands. Based on these new categories, the two peer reviews, and our understanding of Nebraska's system, the current status of the Nebraska standards and assessment system is Non-Approved. This indicates that Nebraska's standards and assessment system administered in the 2005-06 school year has several fundamental components that are missing or that do not meet the statutory and regulatory requirements, and that the evidence provided indicates that the State will not be able to administer a fully approved standards and assessment system in the 2006-07 school year.
Nebraska's system has a number of fundamental components that warrant the designation of Non-Approved. Specifically, the Department cannot approve Nebraska's standards and assessment system due to outstanding concerns regarding whether all local assessment systems meet the requirements of academic content standards in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and high school, academic achievement standards including at least three performance levels, technical quality including validity and reliability, alignment of the assessments to academic content standards, inclusion of all students in the assessment system, and reports of student achievement. Please refer to the enclosure for a detailed list of the evidence Nebraska must submit to meet the requirements for an approved standards and assessment system.
Because of the scope and significance of the areas in which Nebraska has not met Title I statutory and regulatory requirements and because the State will not be able to administer an approved locally developed assessment system in the 2006-07 school year, Nebraska must enter into a Compliance Agreement with the Department, as authorized by Section 457 of the General Education Provisions Act. The purpose of a compliance agreement is to enable a grantee to remain eligible to receive funding while coming into full compliance with applicable requirements as soon as feasible but within three years. The Department and the State will need to agree on the terms and conditions of the compliance agreement including a detailed plan and specific timeline for how Nebraska will accomplish the steps necessary to bring the State into compliance. In addition, before entering into a compliance agreement, the Department must hold a hearing to explore why full compliance with the Title I standards and assessment requirements is not feasible until a future date. The State, affected students and their parents, and other interested parties may participate. The Department must publish findings of noncompliance and the substance of the compliance agreement in the Federal Register. In addition, there will be specific conditions placed on Nebraska's fiscal year 2006 Title I, Part A grant award.
Because Nebraska has not met the requirements of NCLB for the 2005-06 school year and will not be able to come into compliance during the 2006-07 school year, the Department intends to withhold 25 percent of the State's fiscal year 2006 Title I, Part A administrative funds, totaling $126,741, pursuant to Section 1111(g)(2) of the ESEA. Nebraska has the opportunity, within 20 business days of receipt of this letter, to show cause in writing why we should not withhold these funds. If Nebraska cannot show cause, the Department will withhold 25 percent of Nebraska's fiscal year 2006 Title I, Part A administrative funds, which will then revert to the local educational agencies in Nebraska.
As you know, we have also been in conversations with you about a possible withholding of funds because of late identification of schools for improvement. It is clear from the information Nebraska has provided that the local nature of your assessment and accountability system is a factor in how and when these decisions are made. As a gesture of good faith in moving forward to help you implement a local model for assessment, I want to let you know that the Department will not withhold money from Nebraska for the timing of last year's AYP decisions. As part of these discussions, the Department received your request to revise the timeline for AYP determinations starting with the 2006-07 school year. Nebraska proposed to make available preliminary AYP decisions, including whether a school or district has been identified for improvement, to districts on August 1. During the 10 days after August 1, districts review all data submitted and their AYP determination. Immediately following that review, districts will notify parent of students in Title I schools identified for improvement, corrective action, and restructuring of their options for public school choice and supplemental educational services. Otherwise, there's nothing that says when Nebraska expects districts to notify parents. We believe this timeline will help ensure parents are notified about these in a timely fashion given the local nature of your educational system.
I know you are anxious to receive full approval of your standards and assessment system and we are committed to helping you get there. Toward that end, let me reiterate my earlier offer of technical assistance and my offer of meeting with you in person. We remain available to assist you however necessary to ensure you administer a fully approved system. We will contact you in the near future to begin discussing the terms of the compliance agreement. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to call me at 202-260-2777.
Henry L. Johnson
cc: Governor Dave Heineman
Summary of Additional Evidence that Nebraska Must Submit to Meet ESEA Requirements for the Nebraska Assessment System
1.0 - ACADEMIC CONTENT STANDARDS
- Evidence indicating which LEAs have adopted academic content standards and whether an LEA adopted local standards, state standards or no standards in reading/language arts and mathematics for grades 3-8 and high school and science at least one grade in each of three grade spans (3-5, 6-8, and high school).
- A description of the process used to determine whether LEAs have met the academic content standards requirements. Please clarify whether the review of LEA self reports on the web-based tool will be the primary method for evaluating compliance with the academic content standards requirements and how that fits within the Procedures for Local Standards Review.
- A status report on the number of LEAs that meet the academic content standards requirement based on the Local Standards Review.
2.0 - ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT STANDARDS
- Evidence that Nebraska has peer reviewed each LEA's academic achievement standards, including the performance levels and performance descriptors, and approved or not approved them based on the implementation of the components contained in the "Assessing the Assessments — Companion Guide for District and School Personnel" developed by Nebraska and peer reviewed by ED on June 9, 2006.
- A plan for responding to LEAs that have low ratings in order to increase the ability to accurately report performance levels.
- The actual date that the memorandum regarding alternate achievement standards and alternate assessments was issued to confirm that both have been approved.
3.0 - FULL ASSESSMENT SYSTEM
- Evidence indicating which LEAs have implemented assessments, including alternate assessments, in reading/language arts and mathematics at grades 3-8 and high school that have been approved by Nebraska.
- Evidence that each LEA's assessment system has been evaluated and approved or not approved based on the implementation of all of the components contained in the "Assessing the Assessments — Companion Guide for District and School Personnel."
4.0 - TECHNICAL QUALITY
- Evidence indicating which LEAs have assessments, including alternate assessments, that meet NCLB technical quality requirements for grades 3-8 and high school that have been approved by Nebraska based on the implementation of all of the components contained in the "Assessing the Assessments — Companion Guide for District and School Personnel" developed by Nebraska and peer reviewed by ED on June 9, 2006.
- Evidence that Nebraska has peer reviewed the technical quality of each LEA's assessment system and approved or not approved the technical quality based on the implementation of the components contained in the "Assessing the Assessments — Companion Guide for District and School Personnel."
5.0 - ALIGNMENT
- Evidence indicating which LEAs have assessments, including alternate assessments, that meet NCLB alignment requirements for grades 3-8 and high school that have been approved by Nebraska.
- Evidence that Nebraska has peer reviewed the alignment of each LEA's assessment system and approved or not approved the alignment based on the implementation of the components contained in the "Assessing the Assessments — Companion Guide for District and School Personnel."
6.0 - INCLUSION
- Evidence on the enrollment and separate reading and mathematics assessment participation data by subgroup for the most recent year available for each grade 3-8 and high school. This must include the number of students who took the regular assessment, the regular assessment with accommodations and the alternate assessment.
- Evidence documenting that the English Language Development Assessment for ELL students meets the NCLB standards and assessment requirements as an on-grade level assessment aligned to challenging standards.
- Evidence regarding Nebraska's policy that all ELL students in each LEA must take the mathematics tests in grades 3-8 and high school and information regarding how Nebraska documents that ELL students are taking the mathematics tests.
- Evidence that Nebraska has adopted and is implementing a policy to discontinue the practice of counting students assessed on assessments administered out-of-level as participating in assessments for NCLB accountability purposes. This information must be communicated to the LEAs so that they are aware of this policy. Nebraska must amend its accountability workbook to reflect this policy. Any students who take an out-of-level assessment despite this policy must be counted as non-participants on tests administered for NCLB accountability.
7.0 - REPORTING
- Samples of individual student reports for the regular and alternate assessments for review to show student performance levels that are content competency specific and reported using at least three achievement levels, one of which must be at the basic level, one at the proficient level and one at the advanced level.
- Evidence that all major subgroups are being assessed, that the assessment data provided by LEAs is accurate and that the data are being disaggregated as required by NCLB.