The proportion of public schools meeting their prescribed achievement targets under the No Child Left Behind Act appears to have fallen slightly in the 2005-06 school year, while the percent classified under the law as needing improvement increased.
Those trends emerge from an analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center of results released by 34 states and the District of Columbia by Sept. 8. Though not true in every state, the trends bear out earlier predictions that schools would find it increasingly hard to show adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law as the number of students tested grew and the performance targets rose over time.
“To some extent, the standards are getting a little tougher, and people are expecting more,” said Betsy Brand, the director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on education and youth-development issues. “And perhaps states are being more honest in whom they’re counting, and that’s probably a good thing.”
The 4½-year-old federal law requires that, by 2014, all students be proficient on state reading and mathematics tests, including subgroups of students who are poor, speak limited English, belong to racial or ethnic minority groups, or have disabilities.
Many state officials attributed the increasing number of schools that missed one or more achievement targets to the larger number of tests given last school year. The 2005-06 school year marked the first time that all states had to give annual reading and math tests in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.
That meant more schools had enough students tested in specific subgroups to have those subgroups count when calculating progress. In essence, schools had more targets to meet and, therefore, more chances to fail.
National Rate Drops
Nationally, the percent of rated schools making AYP, based on data released so far, dropped from 75 percent to 71 percent. The percent of rated schools in need of improvement increased from 13 percent to 17 percent.
Schools classified as needing improvement that receive federal Title I money face escalating consequences, from being required to allow students to transfer to higher-performing public schools to possible closure. Schools are classified as needing improvement if they fail to make adequate progress for two consecutive years.
In Ohio, the proportion of schools making AYP dropped from 76 percent last year to 61 percent this year. The proportion of schools needing improvement under the federal law more than doubled, from 13 percent to 28 percent.
“It’s more tests,” said J.C. Benton, the spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. “With the addition of testing in grades 3 to 8, there are more scores being counted for AYP purposes.”
In Kentucky, the percent of schools meeting their achievement targets dropped from 75 percent in 2005 to 66 percent this year. “That really is a function of the system itself, because every year the goals get a little harder to reach,” said Lisa York Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.
She cautioned that changes in implementing the federal law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, make it hard to compare results across years.
For the 2005-06 school year only, to meet federal deadlines for testing in grades 3-8, Kentucky gave a national test that was augmented with additional test items in grades for which it had not previously given a state exam. Those results were averaged with test data from the 2004-05 school year to calculate AYP across two different tests and two different groups of students.
Beginning next spring, Kentucky will assess reading and math with a new Kentucky Core Content Test in all NCLB-required grades. The achievement targets that schools had to reach also rose in 2004-05—by about 6 percentage points, on average—and schools were still trying to adjust to those targets, Ms. Gross said.
“The real problem is going to be in another couple of years, when the targets go up again, and they start going up dramatically after that every single year,” she added. “So we expect that every single year, it will be more difficult for schools to make AYP.”
In Indiana, where the percent of schools making AYP dropped from 59 percent to 49 percent, state officials also blamed rising performance targets.
“The major thing that changed this year was that our bar was raised for the first time,” said Jason Bearce, the communications director for the state education department. In English, the target rose from 58.8 percent to 65.7 percent at the proficient level or higher; in math, from 57.1 percent to 64.3 percent.
“One of the things we pointed out when we announced our results is that you have to look beyond the AYP label,” Mr. Bearce said, “because we actually have schools that are making substantial gains that aren’t reflected in this, because they really only get credit for the progress they’re making when their students cross the proficiency line.”
Growth Models and AYP
This year, two states—North Carolina and Tennessee—were permitted to use the growth of individual students below the proficiency bar to help calculate AYP under a “growth models” pilot program approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
But if states were hoping that such growth models would dramatically change AYP results, they may be disappointed.
To date, North Carolina has calculated AYP results based solely on reading scores; it will release final results based on both math and reading scores next month. (“States Late With Data About AYP,” Sept. 6, 2006.)
But so far, said Louis M. Fabrizio, the director of the division of accountability services in the state department of education, “it’s not helping much at all.”
“I think many felt that this was going to be the magic bullet to make this whole thing better, and it doesn’t,” he said of using a growth model, “or at least it doesn’t from what we have seen so far.”
Under North Carolina’s four-year growth model, students must be on a trajectory to score at the proficient level four years from the first time they take a state-administered exam, to count as proficient for calculations of adequate yearly progress. “In North Carolina, where we already have high percentages of students scoring proficient, we believe that the students who are not scoring proficient are those who bring the greatest challenges with them to school,” said Mr. Fabrizio.
For other states, where fewer students now score at the proficient level, the growth model may prove more helpful, he added. “It would be unfortunate if the whole future of growth models is going to be based on how North Carolina and Tennessee perform,” he said.
In Tennessee, only eight schools’ achievement of AYP was attributable to the growth model said Connie J. Smith, the director of accountability for the state education department. Tennessee uses individual student data to project whether students will be proficient three years into the future.
“I was not surprised,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s a stringent application of the projection model.”
Despite the few schools affected, she said, “it’s always worth doing and using a growth model, even if it helps one school.”
Some Good News
Of the states that have released data thus far, about half saw the number of schools needing improvement climb this year, while half saw the number decrease. Tennessee was one of those with some good news. Seventy-six schools made enough improvement for two consecutive years to come off the list. The total number of such schools dropped to 96 this year, compared with 159 last year, or a decrease of about 40 percent.
“We know that our targeted technical assistance is working,” Ms. Smith said. “When you get a focus and a clarity of purpose, you know schools will improve.”
In Georgia, too, many schools in need of improvement came off the list, despite the rollout of a new state curriculum last year—including more difficult English tests in elementary and middle schools, as well as 6th grade math—and higher performance targets at the high school level.
In 2003, the state had 233 schools that had been identified for improvement four or more years, meaning they were preparing for mandatory restructuring under the federal law. This year, Georgia had 69 such schools. All told, the number of schools needing improvement dropped from 354 last year to 310 this year.
“Despite the increase in rigor that we saw, those schools were really focused on getting out of ‘needs improvement,’ and we think that helped a lot,” said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. The state also deployed improvement specialists to help schools.
“Regardless of what people think of NCLB,” Mr. Tofig added, “the idea of being ‘in improvement’—schools don’t want that label, and they focus on trying to get rid of it.”