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Published in Print: December 10, 2003, as In ESEA Wake, School Data Flowing Forth

In ESEA Wake, School Data Flowing Forth

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Nearly two years after its passage, the No Child Left Behind Act has produced one unambiguous result: an avalanche of data on the performance of public schools in the United States. But a survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia by Education Week found less movement on other fronts, such as the number of states now testing in the required grades.

Moreover, many states are still struggling to mesh their existing systems for rating schools with the federal law, which has resulted in confusing messages about what all the numbers mean. The disparities have contributed to a backlash against the law's requirements in some corners that's likely to mount as the nation heads into an election year. President Bush has touted the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as one of his foremost accomplishments.

"There's been a lot of push back of late about the accountability requirements in No Child Left Behind," said Kati Haycock, the president of the Washington-based Education Trust. The group, which advocates high academic standards especially for disadvantaged students, has been a major proponent of the law.

"We actually tend to think of that as mostly good news," she added, in remarks made at a press briefing held late last month in support of the measure. "Our experience has taught us that in order to get some traction on education problems, you've first got to grab educators' attention, and No Child Left Behind has certainly done that."

Last December, Education Week reported that many states were hanging back on carrying out the law's accountability provisions, as they awaited guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

That's not the case today. Education Week's annual state policy survey for the newspaper's Quality Counts report, scheduled for release Jan. 7, found that every state and the District of Columbia now will rate schools based on whether they are making "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law. Those numbers are up from the 29 states and the District of Columbia that rated all their schools, or at least identified low-performing ones, last school year.

"Every single school in our nation now has an accountability plan that covers every student," Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a recent interview. "This is revolutionary. This alone is a powerful change of culture."

Dual Ratings

At the same time, many states have been trying to wed their existing accountability systems with the federal mandates. Twenty-three states, for example, will use criteria in addition to those required under the federal law to rate schools. At least 11 states will apply two or more ratings to assess schools.

South Carolina, for instance, identifies schools as "excellent," "good," "average," "below average," or "unsatisfactory," based on the performance of their total student population on state tests. The state also gives each school an "improvement rating," based on changes in the academic progress of its students from one year to the next. What's more, South Carolina rates schools based on whether they have made adequate yearly progress under the federal law.

In Florida, schools receive a letter grade from A to F under the state's A+ Plan for Education, which focuses on overall school performance and growth, and an AYP rating, based primarily on the performance of subgroups of students.

The downside, said Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based Achieve, a nonprofit group focused on standards-based education, "is massive confusion, owing to the stapling together of state and federal accountability systems, and pretending that we have one, unified system."

"If you, indeed, have a piece of paper that on one side says 'A,' and on the other side says 'B,' what does the public make of that?" said Margaret E. Goertz, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She speculated that it could lead people to pay less attention to AYP ratings, if the public is simultaneously being told that their schools are all right.

But Susan Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Washington-based Business Roundtable, said the dueling ratings are "not an insurmountable problem."

A poll the association of business leaders conducted over the summer, she said, suggested that "people understand that when you look at a school through one lens, it looks this way, but when you add some other criteria, it might have a different rating."

The problem, she and others assert, has been the use of the word "failure" to describe schools.

"It's really highly possible for a school system that's been evaluated based on averages to be perceived as a great school system," said Mr. Paige, "but have one or two subgroups miss several points and be perceived as in need of improvement."

"We think it's insulting to say that school is a 'failing' school," he said. "I think what's happening is our measure is being mischaracterized. We think it's still a great school, but it needs improvement because it's not educating all the kids."

States must submit their final "consolidated state performance report" to the federal government by Dec. 22. The report on activities during the 2002-03 school year must include student performance by subgroup; the names of schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, and the reasons for their identification; and the number of students who have received supplemental services or transferred out of such schools.

As states have released their lists of schools that didn't make adequate progress, the more immediate reaction often has been consternation—and criticism. For the 2002-03 school year, states have identified at least 23,812 schools as not making adequate progress and at least 5,200 as in need of improvement (missing that mark for two or more consecutive years). That's up from 3,826 schools identified as low- performing under state accountability systems last year. And the bigger number excludes data from nine states that have yet to release their AYP lists and five that did not provide data on the number of schools in need of improvement.

'Fix and Fund'

Many policymakers and education groups have complained that President Bush and Congress have not adequately financed the law. An opinion poll released last month by the New York City-based Public Agenda found that nearly nine in 10 superintendents and principals view the law as an "unfunded mandate." Most said the act needs adjustments before it can work.

Democratic candidates for president also have chimed in. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has pledged to eliminate the requirement that schools be graded based on annual student testing. And last month, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who supported the legislation in Congress, vowed to "fix and fund" the act, in part, by changing its testing requirements.

Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions also sent a letter to committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., last month, calling for hearings on the law's implementation. "In light of continuing debate in many communities about the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, we feel that it would be helpful for the committee to hold hearings on the concerns that are being raised," the letter said.

Among the topics worthy of consideration, the senators suggested, are meeting teacher- quality goals in the law; closing achievement gaps for minority students, children with disabilities, and English-language learners; and appropriate flexibility in regulation and implementation.

Concerned that mounting criticism could lead to a direct attack on the law's accountability provisions, the Education Trust last month organized a group of African- American and Latino superintendents to speak out on the legislation's behalf. More than 100 superintendents and other education leaders signed the joint letter to Congress expressing their support for the law's stringent accountability mandates.

"A culture of accountability, and this includes the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind, is the best way to ensure that our schools improve teaching and learning for every child," said Diana Lam, New York City's deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, and one of the signers.

The superintendents said they did not support every detail of the legislation. But they argued that holding schools accountable for the performance of specific subgroups of students, as the law requires, is a vital lever for change.

Penalties Inch Up

Both the Education Trust and the Council of Chief State School Officers have said it's too early to reopen the law on Capitol Hill. Rather, they said, many of the problems can be addressed through regulation. "We are not going to go to the Hill and ask for amendments," said Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy director for the CCSSO. "We don't feel like we need to do that yet. There's lots of flexibility in the law. We just need to make sure that everybody understands that."

"I feel like states have been racing to keep up with the implementation schedule," she added. "The federal department is as swamped as we are in trying to get guidance out and answer questions."

Indeed, the Education Department has been slow to give final approval to state plans to comply with the law's accountability provisions. Only 13 states have had their accountability plans fully approved by the federal government. That's just two more states since August, even though President Bush had proclaimed in June that all states had a federally approved plan.

"I think you need to give full credit to the complexity of the process," said Mr. Paige, who noted that many plans require approval by state legislatures. "What we see is good- faith efforts moving forward by the states, and we feel good about the progress that's been made there."

Based on Education Week's survey, 47 states had their plans fully approved by state legislative or regulatory bodies by the beginning of this month, up from 37 this past summer. Kentucky and the District of Columbia expected to have their plans fully approved at the state or local level this month, and Pennsylvania is hoping to have approval by the end of the year, too.

One concern is whether states will have the capacity to help all the schools identified as low-performing or as missing AYP targets. For the 2003-04 school year, 36 states plan to provide assistance to low-performing schools or those that fail to make adequate progress, regardless of their Title I status, based on Education Week's survey.

Rewards Drop

The number of states with consequences for consistently low-performing schools (not just Title I schools, which receive federal money for disadvantaged youngsters) inched up only slightly, from 22 states and the District of Columbia in 2002-03, to 27 states in 2003-04. The number of states providing financial rewards to improved or high-performing schools actually dropped, from a high of 20 in the 2001-02 school year to 16 this school year, in part because of the weakened economy.

While the federal law requires rewards and penalties for all schools, based on ratings, it spells out specific consequences only for Title I schools.

"A number of states told us they were going to apply the penalties across the board," said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan group that has surveyed all 50 states about their implementation of the federal law. "But we shall see.

"A number of states don't seem to have the capacity to help Title I schools that are going to be on the list for improvement, much less other schools," he said. "So there may be some pulling back because they don't think they have the capability to help."

States also are still struggling to meet the law's testing requirements. By 2005-06, they must test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. States must add science tests at least once in elementary, middle, and high school by 2007- 08.

Last year, Education Week reported that 19 states and the District of Columbia tested in English and math in the required grades. This year, Indiana was added to the list, for a total of 20 states and the District.

A handful of states—Maine, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania—originally had planned to use local assessments in at least some of the required grades to meet the testing requirements and to determine adequate yearly progress. But Maine and Pennsylvania since have decided to devise a state exam in each of grades 3-8.

Maine will give a "mini-version" of the Maine Educational Assessment in those 3-8 grades that the state currently does not test, said Jacqueline Soychak, the team leader for federal program services in the state's education department. Maine officials realized it would take a great deal more time to meet the technical demands for validity, reliability, and comparability in using local tests, she said, "but we needed to do something promptly to be in compliance with the law."

Officials with the federal Education Department said the agency is nearing completion of the guidance document that will be used to review state testing systems under the No Child Left Behind Act.

"We're not waiting until 2005-06 to get started," said Mr. Paige. "We think that was probably an error that was made during the '94 reauthorization."

To date, only half the states have had their testing systems fully approved under the 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA, and many states had timeline waivers that recently expired.

The 2001 law requires that states either use tests custom-tailored to align with state content standards, or off-the-shelf, norm-referenced tests that are "augmented" with additional items to better reflect state standards. Of the 21 states now testing in grades 3-8, 19 use consistent tests across grades. Fifteen of those use tests designed to reflect their state standards. But four still use off- the-shelf tests without any augmentation in at least some grades.

How Much Is Enough?

Deciding how much augmentation is enough will be a major challenge for federal officials. "That's a really tough one," said Mr. Paige. "The peer-review process is going to be central and crucial for this determination." While the government will not review actual tests, he noted, it will ask states to submit studies that provide evidence of alignment.

At least some states are cutting back on existing tests to save money and make room for the federal mandates. In November, the Arizona school board approved a plan to combine elements of the national Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition with the state's standardized exam.

The most visible change so far, however, has been the increased public reporting of data. Since 1994, the ESEA has required states to report test results for subgroups of students, such as those who speak limited English or have a disability. But the No Child Left Behind law upped the ante by forcing states to use those results to rate schools. The law also has much stronger public reporting requirements.

As a result, the number of states publishing test results for each of the categories required under federal law jumped to 43 this school year, up from 16 in 2002-03. States also have been adding information about teacher qualifications to school or district report cards to comply with the law's requirements to put a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom in the core subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

"One of the most powerful, positive impacts of No Child Left Behind may be on how we collect, organize, and use data in education," said Chrys Dougherty, the director of research for the Austin, Texas-based National Center for Educational Accountability, which works with states on data-collection issues.

But, he added, the capacity of states to meet the law's data-gathering requirements varies widely, with many still back at the starting line and wrestling with data-quality issues. In addition, he said, simply publishing the numbers does not drive change.

"There's a missing step in between publishing all the numbers, and organizing them into something that clearly tells you what needs to be done, where the problems are, and where the successes are," Mr. Dougherty said.

"This is a data-driven law; a data-driven reform program," agreed Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy. "But the truth of the matter is that in the past, many teachers did not use the test data that they had from state assessments to improve education for individual kids. Now, teachers are going to have even more data, and yet teachers are not being trained in how to use this data correctly."

On the teacher-quality front, meanwhile, many states have spent the past year trying to define what they mean by a "highly qualified" teacher.

More states also are requiring prospective high school teachers to demonstrate subject-matter expertise by passing a test in the subject they plan to teach. That number has risen to 34 states and the District of Columbia this year, up from 29 in 2000.


Kathryn M. Doherty, the director of special research projects, and Lisa N. Staresina, a research associate, contributed to this report.

Vol. 23, Issue 15, Pages 1,16-18

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