Published Online: May 20, 2008
Updated: April 7, 2012

States Starting Slowly on NCLB Proficiency Goals to Face Crunch, Report Says

States that established modest goals for themselves in the early days of the No Child Left Behind Act may find they need to make nearly impossible improvements in student performance to reach the federal law’s target of 100 percent proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, according to a study released today by the Center on Education Policy.

The center found that 23 states have, in its words, “backloaded” their student trajectories by calling for smaller gains early on, but planning for jumps of up to 10 percentage points in proficiency beginning with the 2010-11 or 2011-12 school years.

“Many states may have originally set lower achievement goals for the first few years under NCLB in hopes of getting systems in place or gaining some flexibility from Washington later on,” Jack Jennings, the president of the CEP, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, said in a statement. “But right now, they are still on the hook for the academic equivalent of a mortgage payment that is about to balloon far beyond their current ability to pay.“

California is an example of a backloaded system, according to the report. In establishing its annual measurable objectives, the state estimated a 24.4 percent proficiency rate by the end of the 2006-07 school year in language arts for students in elementary and middle schools. However, the state is expecting a jump to 35.2 percent in 2007-08, to 46 percent for 2008-09, and to 56.8 percent for 2009-10.

Ohio is also among the states hoping for big increases in the proportion of students passing its proficiency tests.

Mitchell Chester, a former senior associate superintendent of education in Ohio who is now Massachusetts' education commissioner, explained what officials in the Buckeye State were thinking when they set about complying with the 2002 federal education law.

"Our best hypothesis at the time was that it would take Ohio schools a while to adjust their approach to instruction and improve curriculum," he said. "That was the reason we adopted an approach that looked for more incremental progress in the early years of the 12-year trajectory and steeper progress in the later years."

See Also
For more stories on this topic see No Child Left Behind.
For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Adequate Yearly Progress.

Mr. Chester said he worries that the pressure states face to get all students passing the tests by 2013-14 is keeping state education officials from making those tests harder.

"I think that the 100 percent proficiency target actually becomes a disincentive for states to raise academic standards," he said.

South Carolina Plan

The CEP says that 25 states and the District of Columbia set more evenly distributed goals toward proficiency, but even they are unlikely to reach the 100 percent target, according to the report.

South Carolina is an example of such an approach, with the state expecting even increases every three years. For instance, 50 percent of elementary students in the state are supposed to be proficient in mathematics from 2005 to 2008. After that, the next step up is to 70 percent proficiency, which students are expected to maintain for another three years, before jumping to 90 percent proficiency by 2011-12, before reaching 100 percent by the law’s target year of 2013-14.

Florida and Kansas have proficiency trajectories that do not fit into either category, the report says.

The source for the states’ data was the school accountability plans posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site, or from the states themselves. No matter which of the methods a state chose to develop its goals toward proficiency, it’s clear that it will be a difficult standard to meet, Mr. Jennings said. Only about a quarter to a third of states will reach the goal of having all students at proficiency, and evidence is available that states with lower standards and easier tests will reach the 100 percent target the report found.

“This problem cannot be solved by states alone,” Mr. Jennings said. “Congressional leaders must provide some assistance in the reauthorization of the law to help create a more reasonable and workable solution.”

Vol. 27, Issue 38

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