State officials are frustrated and worried over a lack of federal guidance on setting annual performance targets for schools, as required by the nation’s major education law. Fueling their concerns are preliminary simulations in more than a dozen states that suggest a majority of their schools could be identified as needing “improvement,” based on a strict interpretation of the law.
Schools and districts receiving federal Title I money that miss their “adequate yearly progress” targets for two or more years in a row are subject to a range of progressively more serious consequences under the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Provisions in the 1994 edition of the ESEA were already putting the heat on many state and local officials last week. The Department of Education announced that students in more than 8,600 schools nationwide—or nearly 10 percent of the nation’s public schools—could choose to transfer to another public school this fall, because their home schools failed to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years.
State leaders fear that under the new law, which is much more prescriptive about how states set their AYP targets, 60 percent to 90 percent of schools could be in trouble within a few years. (“‘Inadequate’ Yearly Gains Are Predicted,” April 3, 2002.)
Worried that such results would present both a public relations and technical-assistance nightmare, states have been pressing the federal government to provide them with more information—and flexibility—for carrying out the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, as the reauthorized ESEA is known.
State plans for implementing the ESEA accountability provisions are due to the Education Department next January, at the latest. But so far, little guidance from the department has been forthcoming.
“The horror stories in state after state are huge,” G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said at the group’s annual meeting on large-scale testing, held June 23-26 in Palm Springs, Calif. “The [federal] legislators simply don’t believe us. They don’t believe the numbers.”
“So my question to you,” he asked Sue Rigney, an official with the federal Title I office, “is what kind of flexibility within the law as it’s written now is possible?”
“While we’d like to have the answers right now,” Ms. Rigney replied, “we don’t.”
“A couple of months ago,” she continued, “I begged for airtime at this conference because we were so certain we’d have regulations and draft guidance.”
Instead, a letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to state schools chiefs, dated June 6, estimated that final guidelines and regulations would not be ready until late August, at best. He wrote that a letter spelling out the department’s “current thinking” would arrive by mid-July.
“We’ve taken time to thoroughly explore all the issues through expert briefings, regional meetings, and internal deliberations so that we could more fully understand the issues,” Daniel Langan, a spokesman for the department, said last week. “In the end, we decided it was more important to get it right than to get it done quickly.”
A Stricter Standard
In the 1994 ESEA, each state was responsible for setting its own definition of adequate yearly progress. Partly as a result, the number of schools identified as needing improvement varied widely by state. Moreover, many states had no deadline for moving all students to the “proficient” level on state tests.
The new No Child Left Behind Act requires that all schools have 100 percent of their students at the proficient level by the end of the 2013-14 school year. To determine adequate yearly progress, state test results must be broken out by poverty, racial and ethnic group, students with disabilities, and those with limited proficiency in English..
For a school to make adequate yearly progress, each of those subgroups, as well as the student population as a whole, must meet the state’s annual target for the minimum percent of students performing at the proficient level. Separate targets are to be set in reading and mathematics.
States must base their initial targets on test scores from the school year that just ended, 2001-02, and then increase those targets in steady intervals so that 100 percent of students are proficient within 12 years.
The requirements were the subject of intense congressional negotiations last year, in part because of concerns that draft language would have resulted in the classification of too many schools as failing. While education officials see the final legislation as an improvement over the original proposals, they say it has far from solved the problem.
The biggest difficulty, according to state officials, is that every subgroup in a school must meet the same target. And, given the way the law is written, even the initial target is well above the level at which some subgroups perform now. If even one subgroup fails to make its target in either math or reading, the whole school will be identified as needing improvement. Simple measurement and sampling error and the natural volatility in test scores from year to year could result in large numbers of “failing” schools.
Although a “safe harbor” provision was written into the law, designed to help schools that narrowly miss their targets for any subgroup, few officials see it as providing substantial relief.
Nevada’s state testing director, Paul M. LaMarca, estimated that as many as 89 percent of the state’s elementary schools would have been categorized as needing improvement in the past few years, if the new law had been in effect, including schools that had been cited as “exemplary” under the state’s accountability system.
“If you identify everyone, we’re not going to be able to provide technical assistance,” he said.
Exploring Their Options
In the absence of clearer signals from federal education officials, states are running simulations based on their best guesses of what will be required. They’re also pondering a variety of options that could identify what the states would consider a more reasonable number of schools.
The law, for example, allows each state to decide what constitutes proficiency on state tests. In Louisiana, officials are considering renaming their proficiency levels because their existing definition is extremely high compared with those of most states. (“A ‘Proficient’ Score Depends on Geography,” Feb. 20, 2002.)
“We feel like our definition for ‘basic’ is more aligned with the federal definition for ‘proficient’” under the No Child Left Behind Act, said Rodney R. Watson, the assistant superintendent for the office of student and school performance in Louisiana.
States also have some flexibility—although how much remains unclear—in determining how many students must be in a subgroup for the results to be “statistically reliable.” States would not have to break down test results, or use such scores for determining AYP, for groups that fell below that minimum. Some states, such as Massachusetts, are considering a subgroup size as large as 50 for calculating AYP, which would reduce the number of schools with subgroups and, therefore, the number that failed to meet their targets.
Ohio officials estimate that about 70 percent of their schools would have failed to make adequate progress at least once, based on test-score data from the 1998-99 to 2000-01 school years, if the new law had been in place.
One option the state is weighing, said Mitchell D. Chester, an assistant superintendent for education, is to create two classifications of schools needing improvement: one in which all subgroups perform poorly, and another in which only one or two subgroups fail to meet the target. The state would then provide different levels of technical help to each group.
In Delaware, officials examined four years of test scores dating back to 1998 and found that about three-fourths of the schools would have failed to make adequate yearly progress by the end of that time, even though scores, in general, have risen significantly. Particularly with small subgroups, said Robin R. Taylor, the associate secretary of education for assessment and accountability, the performance of just one student can determine whether a school makes adequate progress or not. In addition, some academically at-risk students may fall into three or more subgroups.
“I’d like to see a little bit of flexibility in figuring out a way to deal with those kinds of issues,” Ms. Taylor said. “If we’re meeting the intent of the law, we need to be able to make our case to the Department of Education.”
“Frankly,” the department’s Ms. Rigney advised state testing directors, “if I were standing in your shoes, I believe I’d probably play for time.”
At least some deadlines are imminent. The Education Department last week estimated that more than 8,600 schools will have to offer public school choice this fall, based on figures provided by each state on the number of schools receiving Title I aid that failed to make their AYP targets for two or more years. Title I, with a current budget of $10.4 billion, is the ESEA’s flagship program for disadvantaged students.
While the No Child Left Behind Act changed how states must define adequate yearly progress, Congress did not want to start the clock ticking anew for schools that had already failed to fulfill their targets under the previous version of the ESEA.
Although many school systems already provide parents some form of choice in where their children are educated, districts for the first time will have to use a portion of their Title I aid to pay transportation costs for students in those low-performing schools who wish to attend other, higher-performing public schools.
Just how accurate the Education Department’s numbers are is uncertain. Ohio’s education agency, for example, plans to release updated figures next month based on more recent test data. Overall, the numbers vary widely from state to state.
Michigan topped the federal list, with 1,513 Title I schools in need of improvement. California reported 1,009 schools, and Ohio has 760. By contrast, both Arkansas and Wyoming had none; West Virginia, 13; and the District of Columbia, just 12.
Such huge variations may have as much to do with how each state defines adequate yearly progress as with actual school performance.
“We’re talking about 40 percent of schools in Michigan,” said T.J. Bucholz, a spokesman for the Michigan education department. “Obviously, we don’t think 40 percent aren’t meeting the needs of students. ... Our AYP requirements are so much higher than anywhere else in the union.”
Margaret E. Goertz, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a federally financed research center at the University of Pennsylvania, said several factors influenced the number of schools cited. “I think it’s a combination of the rigor of the assessments, where states set the standards, and how they calculated adequate yearly progress,” she said.
Dottie Howe, a spokeswoman for the Ohio education department, said the figures released by federal officials for her state were based on outdated data from 2000-01. She said a new list would be made publicly available next month. She expressed some concern that federal officials had released the old numbers.
“What I do not want to do is cause confusion for Ohio schools and parents,” she said. Ms. Howe declined to speculate on how many schools would be on the updated list.
Delaine Eastin, California’s schools chief, cautioned that there may not be many students moving out of identified schools this coming year because of space limitations.
“I support school choice, but as a practical matter, it’s hard to implement in California,” she said. “Most of the schools are full to the brim.”
An Education Department official said the federal agency does not have nationwide figures on the number of schools that failed to make adequate progress for three years running. Schools in that category face an added consequence under the new law: They must allow families to direct a portion of the district’s Title I aid to pay for supplemental education services, such as private tutoring or an after-school program.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Frustration Grows as States Await ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ Advice