Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Teaching and Learning (Education)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Batya Elbaum

Second Committee Member

Wendy Cavendish

Third Committee Member

Scotney Evans

Fourth Committee Member

Robert Moore


This study used a combination of descriptive statistics and qualitative methods to investigate Florida’s NCLB waiver with respect to its school accountability grading system as it was applied to elementary, middle, and K-8 schools in a large, urban school district. Using publicly accessible school accountability data for the 2013-2014 academic year, the quantitative component of this study examined the extent to which Florida’s school grading system hides or highlights reading performance disparities across student subgroups. Quantitative results indicate that the exclusion of disaggregated data in accountability rating determinations functions to systematically mask critical disparities in reading proficiency between student subgroups, even at the highest rated schools. As a result, performance inequities are largely rendered invisible making it possible for highly graded schools to receive accountability rewards and accolades despite substantial performance disparities for Black/African American students and students with disabilities. In-depth interviews were conducted with 10 school leaders from five moderate to highly graded schools in order to better understand school leader sensemaking with respect to the NCLB waiver and school grades. Several themes emerged related to the ways in which school leaders interpret, communicate, and respond to school accountability grades, student performance, and state policy more generally. Overall, findings from this study paint a picture of school leaders as ambivalent policy actors. Depending on context, willingness, and individual perceptions, leaders were at times limited and in other circumstances more liberated in their capacity for recognizing and counteracting less than equitable policies and systems. Results from this study have implications for policy design, leadership practice, and school leadership preparation.


Educational accountability; School ratings; School leadership; Critical policy study; Performance disparities