Following the firestorm over the annual measurable objectives (AMOs) released by the Virginia Dept. of Education back in July and the letter from the U.S. Dept. of Education instructing VDOE to re-do those AMOs, VDOE has released new AMOs for consideration by the Virginia Board of Education at its September 27, 2012 public meeting. The full AMO proposal is available here.

The initial AMOs proposed by VDOE, using a faulty methodology initially approved by USED, were judged unacceptable because they did not result in any significant closing of the achievement gap between low performing students and those performing better; generally Black, Hispanic, low-income, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency show significant gaps in achievement in reading and math. While no student group showed significant closing of the gap under the initial AMOs (see Virginia AMO Fact Sheet for details), the African-American community showed the strongest opposition, expressing outrage to the bias of setting lower expectations for students by race. Their actions generated lots of press and helped drawn national attention to the issue.

In its letter to VDOE, the U.S. Dept. of Education instructed the state to identify an alternate methodology that will result in AMOs that require subgroups that are further behind to make greater rates of progress. Has VDOE adequately responded to this direction? It would appear not.

At issue:

–       While USED clearly stated that the initial methodology must be revised, VDOE has applied the same methodology to establish the starting pass rates for all student subgroups as well as the “all students” AMOs for every year through 2017. This approach results in the starting pass rates being set LOWER – in some cases much lower than the actual pass rates for the 2011-2012 school year. See the chart below for a comparison of the actual pass rates for each student group on the Virginia Mathematics assessment in 2011-2012 versus the starting AMO (pass rate) for the same year. In every case the AMO is lower than the actual pass rate, and for English Language Learners it is a full 20 points lower.

The options for setting new AMOs provided to states seeking ESEA flexibility revolve around setting the start point for pass rates using the proficiency rates on2010-2011 assessment  (for Principle 2.B, Options A and B) or another method that is educationally sound and results in ambitious AMOs. (VDOE claimed that it could not use results from the 2010-2011 assessments because the state is in the process of implementing new standards of learning assessments in Math (2011-2012) and Reading (2012-2012))

A comparison of the new AMOs and AMOs that would result from using USED’s Option A is below:

All students: 84 vs.  73 
White: 87.5  vs. 73
Asian: 93.5  vs. 73
Low income: 79  vs. 73
ELL: 85.5  vs. 73
Students with disabilities: 70  vs. 73
Hispanic: 80.5  vs. 73
Black: 76  vs. 73

–        The new AMOs appear to ONLY apply to a school (or a subgroup within a school) that had a pass rate LOWER than the AMOs, as VDOE now states that every school is expected to meet either the AMO or the school’s previous year’s pass rate, whichever is higher (up to 90%). This will prove extremely confusing for the public, and likely even for schools themselves. Additionally, it would be helpful to know roughly how many schools would be in this position. A better approach, which is allowable under the ESEA waivers, would be for VDOE to set individual AMOs for each school (for all students and each subgroup) – ensuring that every school is challenged to improve while expecting more improvement from those schools with the poorest performance.

–        While the new AMOs for low-performing subgroups appear to be rigorous, it is also made clear that schools may still meet the pass rate via safe harbor, which is a 10% reduction in the failure rate over the year prior, with no correlation to the AMOs. Therefore, exactly where subgroups stand in relationship to the AMOs will be difficult to understand.

Where do we go from here?

VDOE should formulate AMOs using the 2011-2012 proficiency rates, calculated to cut in half the proficiency gap for each student group by 2017, and establish AMOs specific to every school and every subgroup within each school.