Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary
September 29, 2005
Archived Information

September 29, 2005

Dear Chief State School Officers:

All Americans should be extremely proud of how our schools and communities across the country have helped the families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At the U.S. Department of Education, we have been working to help those States most affected. I have sent a number of representatives to several States across the impacted areas to meet with students, parents, superintendents, teachers, and others to gather information, and the President has announced a historic plan that includes up to $2.6 billion that would adequately cover additional costs incurred in educating the children disrupted by the storms. Our plan also includes additional waiver authority to accommodate this specific situation. Further, I am currently providing flexibility and waivers from federal law when necessary and appropriate.

A few States have asked whether we will waive the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) regarding assessments and adequate yearly progress (AYP). In order to accommodate this unique situation in a sensible way, I am providing two temporary options, one or both of which States may adopt if they so choose.

Option 1: Exercise Existing Natural Disaster Provisions of NCLB. NCLB currently does not require a school or district to move forward in the school improvement timeline if the reason for not making AYP is “due to exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances, such as a natural disaster…” See § 1116(b)(7)(D) and § 1116(c)(10)(F). These provisions foresaw the challenges that events like the hurricanes could bring. Therefore, any State or school district with schools: (1) that are located in the “major disaster” areas declared by the President in the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida as a result of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita; and (2) that have sustained substantial damage such that the schools have been closed for a significant period of time as a result of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita, may implement this delay for the 2005-2006 school year without a waiver. Some counties in the five States, for example Orleans and St. Bernard in Louisiana and Hancock in Mississippi, will meet these two criteria. In addition, I am willing to consider waivers for other schools or districts that have been otherwise adversely impacted by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita due to enrolling large numbers of displaced students or other factors.

I expect States to exercise good judgment and provide guidance to districts in determining eligibility for a one-year delay and to report their decisions to the Department. The school or district must provide evidence to the State, ideally in the form of assessment or academic achievement information, that the reason for not making AYP was in fact caused by the effects of the hurricanes or the enrollment of displaced students.

Option 2: Establish a Separate Subgroup for Displaced Students. For the 2005-06 school year only, I am willing to consider favorably a waiver request from a State for schools or districts heavily impacted by Hurricanes Katrina or Rita that would allow them to establish a separate subgroup of displaced students. At the State’s discretion, if a waiver is granted, these students may appear only in this subgroup for NCLB reporting and accountability purposes and not in any other subgroup to which they would usually belong.

Consistent with this flexibility, States must comply with current NCLB requirements for assessment, accountability, and public reporting. All students, including displaced students, must be tested on State assessments, and States must ensure that their policies help schools and districts meet the AYP goal of testing at least 95 percent of students. Once the assessment has occurred and all relevant facts can be considered, the Department, in conjunction with affected States, will make decisions regarding school and district accountability. Having performance information separately identified will help us make more informed judgments about how displaced students performed and how and to what extent accountability determinations will be applied next year.

Rationale: Every year, States, districts and schools respond to population growth and other changes in school enrollment in an efficient and effective manner. Many of you have also absorbed serious impacts from earlier events (such as the hurricanes faced by Florida last year) without waivers from NCLB accountability provisions. The unique nature of the hurricanes this year requires unique solutions, governed by common sense and compassion, and tailored to individual circumstances. What is appropriate for the schools and districts physically destroyed or damaged will not necessarily be the same as for those receiving significant numbers of displaced students or for those receiving only a small number or none at all. We also know that many of the students forced to leave their neighborhood schools may move again during the next few weeks and months. The best thing we can do for them is what you are doing now - offering a productive school year full of hope, learning, and high expectations. We will work with States electing either of these options to help provide additional guidance to districts and schools.

Additional Considerations and Resources: As we visit with districts and schools impacted directly or indirectly by the hurricanes, it is clear that students are being welcomed, treated with respect and dignity, and quickly enrolled in classes, in most cases without benefit of school records or other documented academic information. Many of you have indicated that shortly, if not already done by now, you intend to assess these students in a variety of ways to help confirm initial placement or to guide a change in placement. I encourage you to not only use appropriate diagnostic assessments or progress-monitoring tools to help identify individual strengths and needs at placement, but to follow up with similar procedures throughout the year to monitor academic improvement. To support those schools that administer such assessments, I would encourage States to use this information as additional evidence to support the implementation of Option 1, and I may consider the data thus generated as appropriate for measuring alternate AYP goals for Option 2.

Motivated by the consequences of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the National Center for Special Education Research in the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, under the leadership of Dr. Edward Kame’enui, Commissioner of Special Education Research, and a team of nationally recognized researchers, local educators, and others developed guidance offering suggestions for how districts and schools might organize in response to such unfortunate events. This guidance provides general suggestions for enrolling students and organizing resources when a school is faced with a large influx of students. It will be found at next week.

Finally, the Department will work to help interested States understand the similarities and differences between their own State content standards and academic assessments and the standards and assessments of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. This information can be used to tailor instruction and arrange for supplemental services that will help these students throughout the year and assist in meeting AYP goals.

Thank you for continuing the partnership with the Department as we work to make this year as normal, routine, and productive as possible, not only for your resident children, but for those whom you have welcomed. I pledge to work through these issues with you in the same responsive, commonsense manner that I have tried to employ since I assumed my position in January. To make this work, we must trust in one another and trust that, in the end, we will have best served the needs of all students and that the right balance between instruction and accountability will have been struck.

  Margaret Spellings

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Last Modified: 09/29/2005