The percentage of the nation’s schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act during the 2010-11 school year hit nearly 50 percent, according to a recent report by the Center on Education Policy—far lower than the 82 percent U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned of last year in trying to spur Congress to rewrite the law.
Mr. Duncan testified before Congress last March that “four out of five schools in America may not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: States and districts all across America may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of schools’ individual needs.”
At the time, education policy experts on both sides of the political aisle were critical of Mr. Duncan’s estimate, which some said would arouse undue fear and damage the Department of Education’s credibility. (“Duncan’s Alarm on ‘Failing’ Schools Raises Eyebrows,” Mar. 16, 2011.)
And his warning had little effect, as reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the current version, continues to languish in Congress.
NCLB Turns 10
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Education Department officials said at the time that to come up with the 82 percent projection, they used four years’ worth of AYP data, from the 2006-07 through the 2009-10 school years, and assumed that all schools would improve at the rate of the best-performing quartile of schools.
“Unfortunately, their estimate is off,” CEP President Jack Jennings said in an interview after the Dec. 15 release of the Washington-based research group’s report, which used actual state-by-state data for 2010-11—not available to the department at the time of the secretary’s testimony—in estimating that 48 percent of schools would not make AYP.
But Mr. Jennings also said the increase in the percentage of schools failing to make AYP over the years “shows that NCLB needs to be changed.” In essence, he said,
these large numbers indicate that more and more schools may be subject to unnecessary interventions, which kick in after two consecutive years of failing to make AYP. What’s more, he said, the Obama administration is justified in issuing waivers of certain NCLB requirements.
In a statement responding to the CEP data, Secretary Duncan said that even though the numbers are different, the message is still the same.
“Whether it’s 50 percent, 80 percent, or 100 percent of schools being incorrectly labeled as failing, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind is broken,” he said in the late-December statement. “That’s why we’re moving forward with giving states flexibility from the law in exchange for reforms that drive student success.”
With reauthorization stalled, Mr. Duncan is using authority Congress granted under the NCLB law to give states waivers of key elements of the law. That process is ongoing, as the first 11 states have filed their proposals for NCLB flexibility, which are being considered now by the department.
The 48 percent failure rate cited in the CEP report is up from 39 percent the year before, and CEP researchers note that the 2010-11 figure could change by a percentage point or two because some states are still calculating final numbers and working through appeals from individual schools.
Under the NCLB law, the number of “failing” schools is expected to escalate each year as the country gets closer to the key deadline: All students are to be proficient inmath and reading by the end of 2013-14 school year.
Driving the Rate
Many factors, however, can influence the passing and failing rates schools post from year to year—and it’s possible states made changes to their cutoff scores or academic targets after the Education Department made its estimates.
Take Delaware, for example. In 2010, 60 percent of schools there did not make AYP, according to the CEP report. In 2011, the proportion plummeted to 17 percent. While some students and schools may have posted big gains, the overall improvement is more likely attributable to state officials’ having moved the bar lower as they instituted a new test.
In addition, a few states, including Idaho and Montana, successfully lobbied federal officials to freeze their achievement targets at 2010 levels, meaning there would be fewer new schools added to the failing list. Had it not been for those changes, 2011 AYP failure rate may have been higher than 48 percent.
Only three states, plus the District of Columbia, actually hit or exceeded Mr. Duncan’s estimate on failure to make AYP, according to the CEP report: Florida, at 89 percent; Missouri, at 88 percent; and the District and New Mexico, each at 87 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum are Wisconsin, where only 11 percent of schools did not make AYP; Kansas, at 16 percent; and Rhode Island at 17 percent.
The CEP report says that doesn’t mean Wisconsin, Kansas, and Rhode Island necessarily have better K-12 systems than their counterparts with much higher failure rates. Instead, the difference in AYP success is likely more a reflection of test difficulty, cutoff scores, student demographics, and the academic targets.
Such a disparity, Mr. Jennings said, “shows the wisdom of having common academic standards and common tests.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as AYP Glass Half Full For States