When it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act, sometimes geography is destiny.
Take the neighboring states of Florida and Georgia. A public school in Tallahassee, Fla., is far more likely to fall short of a critical performance measure under the federal law than a school due north in Cairo, Ga.
The reasons may well have more to do with the 250-mile state border and the policymakers who live on either side than with the academic ability of students.
The states’ most recent results on the federal gauge—known as adequate yearly progress—are essentially the mirror image of one another. In Florida, about 77 percent of schools did not make adequate progress. In Georgia, 78 percent did.
But comparing the Georgia and Florida figures is like comparing, well, peaches to oranges.
Not only does each state have its own academic standards and tests for measuring such progress, but any number of fairly technical policy decisions can also have a big influence on how a state’s schools fare under the federal law.
“I think they’re both following the law,” said Scott Marion, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H. “I just think the law allows for this kind of discrepancy. . There are so many permutations.”
“Some states are—to use a bad term—a little more clever in making the law work for them,” said Scott C. Young, a policy specialist at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
To be sure, Florida and Georgia have considerable differences. For example, the Sunshine State has almost twice as many English-language learners proportionately—8.2 percent of its student population, compared with 4.3 percent in Georgia.
Still, the two states have a lot in common. Recent statistics show they have about the same rate of impoverished children—just shy of 20 percent—and minority students, nearly half of total public school enrollment. And national test data suggest that students overall in the two states are pretty similar academically.
Success or Flop?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in meeting the federal requirement is that schools must show pro gress not just overall, but also for various student subgroups. Those include children from racial- and ethnic-minority backgrounds, those with disabilities and limited English proficiency, and students from low-income families. Missing a state’s performance target for just one category, either on the mathematics or reading tests, means a school has not made adequate progress.
Furthermore, a school in general must test 95 percent of students from each subgroup to meet the AYP benchmark. Schools that miss any target for two or more consecutive years face increasingly severe consequences.
In addition to test participation, a lot of other nonacademic factors can influence a school’s fate under the No Child Left Behind law.
Experts say that every additional subgroup a school has to count increases the chances that it will miss the federal mark. In Florida, the threshold to count a subgroup for a school is at least 30 students. In Georgia, it’s 40.
By the same logic, the smaller a school’s population, the fewer subgroups it would likely be judged by. Florida tends to have larger schools than Georgia.
Another crucial factor is whether a state uses a confidence interval, a statistical technique that accounts for measurement and sampling error. In effect, it gives schools more leeway in gauging the performance of subgroups, and can help a school over the adequate-progress threshold.
Georgia, like an increasing number of states, uses that statistical method; Florida does not.
And while the federal law calls on states to ensure all students are “proficient” in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year, states have set different targets to reach that goal.
Here, the contrast between Florida and Georgia may be surprising, as Georgia this past year required more of its students to score at or above grade level than Florida did.
The definition of “proficient” is different in every state, too.
David N. Figlio, an economics professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said he couldn’t speak about Georgia’s approach, but he noted that Florida’s expectations for schools are demanding and are likely to help explain the large proportion of schools—among the highest nationwide—that fell short.
“Florida has pretty high standards as far as what it means to be proficient, relative to other states,” he said.
But Mr. Marion of the Center for Assessment said he doubted that was a big factor.
“I can go down a list of states” with strong standards, he said. “Everybody did better than Florida.”
Florida’s results, announced this summer, caused a stir, especially because they appeared out of whack with ratings under the state’s letter-grade system.
Many schools given an A under the Florida system—707 out of 1,262—did not make adequate progress under the federal measure.
Those findings sparked such headlines as “Schools Graded a Success by State, a Flop by Feds,” from the St. Petersburg Times.
Mackay Jimeson, a spokesman for Florida’s education agency, emphasized that nearly all the A schools that fell short as judged by NCLB rules came close to the goals, meeting 90 percent or more of the categories required.
“That helps register with parents what’s going on at their school,” he said.
Students Look ‘Worse’
Ruth H. Melton, the director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association, argues that Florida should make better use of the federal law’s flexibility.
“I’m not suggesting we want to make our students look better than they are,” she said. “But the outcome is that we tend to make them look worse than they are.”
William J. Montford, the superintendent of the 33,000-student Leon County school system, which covers the Tallahassee area, said he’s comfortable with Florida’s approach.
“Florida could have made adjustments in our criteria which would have resulted in more schools, more districts meeting AYP,” he said. “But ... the leadership of Florida, including a lot of the superintendents, agreed that we do not need to change and weaken or lower our standards in order to do better on No Child Left Behind.”
Both states made gains over the 2002-03 school year. In Florida, the final figure climbed to 23 percent of schools’ making adequate progress, compared with 18 percent the year before. In Georgia, the figure rose from 64 percent to 78 percent, results generally more in keeping with other states’.
Kathy B. Cox, Georgia’s state schools chief, argues that the growth reflects a blend of improved school performance, more careful attention to rules that trip up schools—such as not testing enough students—and taking advantage of new flexibility offered by the federal government.
“People were so focused, teachers and principals and superintendents, like you have never seen before,” she said.
Although Ms. Cox said she was pleased by Georgia’s results, she recognizes that it will be still harder for her state and others down the road. “We all know the bar keeps going up,” she said.