Education Secretary Duncan’s Announcement Paves Way for Greater Accountability in Wisconsin Schools

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

In an anticipated move that could help boost accountability in Wisconsin’s schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced this week that certain states will be granted waivers from federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) regulations. As a result, Wisconsin may soon be able to implement a more efficient method by which to grade its schools.

Duncan’s announcement comes after “universal clamoring” from local educating authorities regarding NCLB’s implementation over the past decade. Many states have had difficulty meeting the program’s standards, and those problems have only gotten worse as the metric has gotten tougher and tougher as time has drawn on. Wisconsin’s problems with NCLB standards, however, follow a different path.

The Badger State has earned a reputation as having inflated school reputations as a result of some of the softest NCLB regulation in the country. A 2009 study by the Fordham Institute showcased how underperforming schools are able to meet Adequate Yearly Progress levels more easily in Wisconsin than in most states. Thanks to high thresholds for what constitutes a student group and partial-credit test scores, the state had the lowest standards for making AYP of any of the 28 states surveyed in the study.

However, recent announcements are showing the state’s willingness to reform this weakness.

The timing fits well with Wisconsin’s newfound commitment to improving the system by which the state’s schools are graded. Last month, the Governor’s office teamed with the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to unveil the design team that will create a new rubric for schools. The end result will give residents statewide a better idea of just how their schools are faring.

This team will be challenged to create a system that accurately rates schools during a period when the state’s standardized test is woefully ineffective. The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) has long been derided as a poor metric by students, teachers, and administrators alike. As a result, gleaning useful information that can be used to judge teachers and schools will be a difficult task, but also an important one. This problem may be an influential factor when Duncan weighs the state’s chances to be excluded from NCLB regulations.

State Superintendent Tony Evers was optimistic that Duncan’s stance would mean positive gains for Wisconsin. “I appreciate Secretary Duncan’s leadership on the issue of waivers for new, improved models of accountability,” Evers said in a statement Monday. “The No Child Left Behind law is a broken law. With Congress failing to make a fix, Wisconsin is moving forward to design and implement a more meaningful accountability system that will ensure our students graduate from high school ready for college and careers.”

The state’s head start on creating a new accountability system will give them an advantage when it comes to applying for a federal waiver. Wisconsin’s past proficiency in gaming the system may play a role as well, as the state has proven that NCLB is a flawed program whose results can be skewed thanks to state-by-state variances. However, the anticipated influx of waiver requests across the country may play a greater role in Duncan’s final decisions over which states are exempt.

The end game here may well be the discontinuation of No Child Left Behind, but the adjustment of the program’s increasingly unattainable goals had been in the cards for a while now. Duncan’s plan will shift accountability from a federal level to an individual, state-by-state metric. While this may decentralize educational standards, it will also give states like Wisconsin the power to customize a system to better fit its schools.

We’ve already seen a Badger-centric program begin to take shape behind Superintendent Evers’s design team. If states are granted waivers from NCLB regulation due to local-level accountability, then Wisconsin will be prepared for that change. The result will be an easier, more revealing system that shows Wisconsinites across the state just how much they can expect from their local schools.