The effects of NCLB waivers in Kentucky

More than forty states got waivers under the Obama Administration, in part to get around NCLB’s unrealistic expectation that all schools would be proficient by 2014, but the states had to promise aggressive reform efforts in return. Studies that examine the impacts of some of the key provisions of this policy are starting to trickle in—and one such study of Kentucky was conducted by Stanford’s Tom Dee and colleagues. Recall that under the waivers, the feds required that states identify schools where subgroups of students have the lowest achievement. These were to be known as “Focus Schools,” and were to implement “research based interventions.”

The Bluegrass State is interesting because it was the first state to adopt the Common Core, and it won $17 million in the federal Race to the Top competition. It was also among the first group of states to apply for a federal waiver from NCLB. It developed explicit guidance for Focus Schools (more on that below) and used a “super subgroup” measure that combined all traditionally low-performing subgroups—meaning those who were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, in special education, black, Hispanic, American Indian, and English language learners—into an umbrella group, which they called a “student gap group” or SGG.

In Kentucky, all schools must have a “comprehensive school improvement plan” overseen by a school committee—comprising parents, students, and community members—in charge of designing and monitoring the plan. The Focus Schools, however, have additional responsibilities, including ensuring curricular alignment to the Common Core, providing time for teacher collaboration and data-driven strategies, and devising strategies to improve school safety and discipline.

In the study, analysts use school report card data for over nine hundred elementary and middle schools, school-level measures of student proficiency, and various school-level data on schools, teachers, and students. They focus the analysis on the first full year of implementation (2013–14) because the additional requirements, originally required only of Focus Schools, were extended to all schools after that year.

About one-fifth of the analytic sample (187 schools) had Focus School status. The student gap score, based on the 2011–12 state test results, is the main criterion that determines Focus School status. The cutoff for inclusion as a Focus School is specific to each school level; schools with an SGG score in the bottom 10 percent of elementary or middle schools are eligible. Analysts use a regression discontinuity design where they compare the “gap groups” in schools just above and below the cutoff.

The analysts find substantial improvements in school performance. Specifically, the Focus Schools saw math achievement rise by 5 percentage points, which is equivalent to a 17 percent increase for the targeted students compared to the comparison group mean. Reading achievement increased by 9 percent. They also find positive but not always statistically significant results for the non-gap group.

Other state studies of reforms under waivers (like in Louisiana) are not finding differences like these. Analysts hypothesize that designating a large, umbrella group of underserved students (a.k.a. a super subgroup) helped to foster improvement more so than narrowly targeting reform efforts on one smaller subgroup. What’s more, the study established that such a group was not masking low individual subgroup performance. That’s super news for super subgroups.

SOURCE: Sade Bonilla and Thomas Dee, “Sade Bonilla and Thomas Dee, "The Effects of School Reform Under NCLB Waivers: Evidence from Focus Schools in Kentucky," Center for Education Policy and Analysis (June 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.