Published Online: September 25, 2008
Published in Print: October 1, 2008, as Schools Found Likely to Miss NCLB Academic Targets

Schools Found Likely to Miss NCLB Targets

Seperate studies cite problems meeting AYP and proficiency goals.

Two new studies cast doubt on U.S. schools’ ability to make the academic improvements required under the No Child Left Behind Act, a topic likely to be of prime concern to members of Congress next year as it prepares to review the law’s core goals during reauthorization.

One study probes a central tenet of the nearly 7-year-old federal law: that all students will reach academic proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, a goal viewed as unrealistic by many policymakers and observers.

Using statistical-modeling techniques, the study’s authors examine the progress of the nation’s most populous state, California, in attempting to meet the proficiency mark. They conclude that nearly all the state’s elementary schools will fail to meet that target, in large part because of the difficulty of bringing English-language learners and economically disadvantaged students up to speed academically.

The study, published this week in the scholarly journal Science, focuses only on California. But its analysis of the difficulty of reaching proficiency could probably apply to other states that have adopted similar strategies and timelines for making progress toward the 2013-14 proficiency goal, said Richard A. Cardullo, a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside, who is one of the authors.

Problems Obscured

Recent increases in the statewide percentage of California students’ reaching the “proficient” or “advanced” level on state tests tend to obscure the difficulty that individual schools have in meeting the goals of the federal law, the authors say. Subgroups of students in those schools, particularly English-language learners and disadvantaged students, are likely to continue to struggle to meet the federal mandate over the next five years, the study concludes.

“Redirecting the focus to the lowest-performing subgroups at each school results in a different distribution in school performance,” the authors say, which “reveals a profound acceleration in the [rate] at which schools will fail to make AYP,” or adequate yearly progress.

A team of researchers at UC-Riverside completed the study. They are working on a project, financed with a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation and directed by Mr. Cardullo, that examines strategies for improving student achievement and teacher training in mathematics.

The NCLB law requires schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and math, and make adequate yearly progress in those subjects.

While many observers agree that schools will not meet the NCLB law’s goal of universal proficiency by 2013-14, states are required to hold schools accountable for meeting achievement targets based on that goal.

Stuck in Restructuring

That is one of the reasons there has been a significant rise in the number of schools entering the law’s “restructuring” phase, according to a second study, released this week by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think thank.

That study, “A Call to Restructure Restructuring: Lessons from the No Child Left Behind Act in Five States,” estimates that during the 2007-08 school year, 3,599 schools nationwide were forced to choose one of several restructuring options to change their management or instructional strategies with the goal of improving student performance.

The number represents a 56 percent increase from the year before, according to the report by the center, a research and policy group that is tracking the federal law’s implementation. Schools are required to undergo restructuring if they fail to make adequate yearly progress—the measure of whether they are on pace to meet the law’s achievement goal—for five years.

Urban Struggles

Most of the schools in “restructuring” in 2007-08 in five states studied were in urban areas. Previous studies have shown a similar trend nationwide.

The two studies have emerged as Congress prepares to consider proposals to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, though interest in the topic has waned in recent months as attention to the ongoing presidential and congressional campaigns has increased.

Some supporters of the law, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, have argued that the 2013-14 proficiency goal should be kept intact. Relaxing that goal would lessen schools’ incentive to improve academically, they argue.

Others, however, have suggested postponing the deadline or modifying the proficiency target. Even some of the law’s biggest supporters agree that it will be virtually impossible to achieve universal proficiency by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The main reason is that schools failed to comply with the NCLB law’s mandate to hire “highly qualified” teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students, said Amy Wilkins, the vice president of governmental affairs and communications for the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that was instrumental in designing the law, which Congress passed in December 2001.

“We haven’t provided the help to struggling schools, and we haven’t provided the teachers they need,” said Ms. Wilkins. “Good teachers dramatically change not just the learning trajectories, but the life trajectories of students, and we didn’t do that.”

Last year, the Education Trust proposed extending the deadline for states that agreed to revise their proficiency standards and gear them toward preparing students for college or the workforce. ("Not All Agree on Meaning of NCLB Proficiency," April 18, 2007.)

Tough Standard for States?

The California study found that for most of the state’s elementary schools, the greatest difficulty in meeting the 2013-14 proficiency deadline will come in language arts rather than math. Disadvantaged students and those with limited English skills are most likely to cause schools to miss the mark, and the data suggest that “very little change in this pattern can be anticipated over the next five years,” the authors conclude.

The study’s findings are disappointing but not surprising, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for California schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell. He has asked federal officials for changes that will give the state credit for improving student performance, particularly among struggling learners, she said.

“Unless states are willing to water down their standards—which we’re not—you’re going to see this pattern replicated in other states,” Ms. McLean said.

The Center on Education Policy study, which examines school results in California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio, found that once struggling schools go into mandatory restructuring, it’s hard for them to exit.

In the 2007-08 school year, for example, just 19 percent of the restructuring schools met their AYP goals. Schools must meet those goals for two consecutive years to break out of the NCLB law’s accountability interventions.

As the 2013-14 school year nears, it will become more difficult for all schools to meet their AYP goals, which are escalating based on meeting the proficiency goal by the end of that time frame, one of the report’s authors says.

“States are anticipating more and more schools being in the later stages of restructuring,” said Caitlin Scott, the lead researcher for the CEP report.

Vol. 28, Issue 06, Page 9

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