Defying Predictions, State Trends Prove Mixed on Schools Making NCLB Targets

By Lynn Olson — September 07, 2005 8 min read

Many people predicted this would be the year that schools nationwide began feeling the bite of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as states ratcheted up their performance targets and more schools failed to meet those benchmarks.

But such dire predictions are not playing out uniformly across the states, an Education Week analysis shows. Of the 33 states and the District of Columbia that had released information by the end of August on the percent of schools that made adequate yearly progress under the federal law, about half saw the proportion of schools meeting their performance targets climb, while half saw the percentage go down.

And that mixed national picture may have as much to do with how each state calculates progress, based on agreements worked out with the federal government, as on overall test-score trends.

See Also

See the accompanying items:

Map: School Ratings and Student-Achievement Mismatch

State-by-State Table: NCLB Continues to Challenge Schools in 2005: PDF file | Excel file

“You’re getting a different set of factors in each state,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. “So you’re getting all types of results.”

As states get closer to the federal law’s ultimate goal of having all students academically proficient by the 2013-14 school year, this year’s AYP scorecard is being affected by more ambitious expectations for test-score gains, as many analysts predicted. But at the same time, the pressure is being tempered by concessions granted by the federal government as states seek greater leeway in determining which schools make the grade.

For this article, the Education Week Research Center collected data on the percent of schools that made adequate progress in 2004 and in 2005 by state, and the percent of students who scored proficient or higher on state reading and mathematics tests in grades 4 and 8, the two grades also yielding state-by-state results on the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though many states calculate AYP using additional grade levels, the findings provide a rough indication of whether test-score trends and AYP results are in tandem.

Among the states with data available, 14 saw gains in both the proportion of students scoring proficient or better on state tests and the percent of schools making AYP; 11 saw their proficiency rates rise, while the proportion of schools making AYP fell; one state had the reverse pattern; and four saw declines in both categories.

The nearly 4-year-old federal law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires states to test their students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

To make AYP, schools and districts must have a minimum percent of students scoring at the proficient level or higher on state tests, both for the student population as a whole and for numerically significant subgroups of students who are poor, speak limited English, have disabilities, or come from racial or ethnic minorities.

Schools and districts that don’t meet their targets for at least two years in a row face consequences, particularly if they receive federal Title I money for disadvantaged students.

The law requires states to raise their targets for schools and districts at least once every three years, with the aim of bringing all students to proficiency on state exams by 2013-14. But the U.S. Department of Education has negotiated with each state about the specific timeline for raising those targets, the minimum number of students in a subgroup before it counts for accountability purposes, and other details of state accountability plans.

Those negotiations may explain some of the differences in AYP results.

Different Ground Rules

Take the cases of Florida and Hawaii. About a third of Hawaii’s schools made adequate progress this past academic year, down from 53 percent in 2004. In contrast, Florida saw the proportion of schools meeting its performance targets jump from 23 percent to 36 percent.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Florida’s schools are getting better and Hawaii’s schools are getting worse. In fact, the proportion of students scoring proficient or better on state math and reading tests rose in both states.

Hawaii, though, significantly raised the bar its schools must meet for the first time this past academic year: In 2005, schools in Hawaii had to get 28 percent of their students to the proficient level or higher in math, up from 10 percent in 2004, and 44 percent in reading, up from 30 percent the previous year.

“That was a huge step,” said Greg Knudsen, the communications director for the Hawaii department of education. While many schools have made gains since 2004, he noted, they weren’t large enough to satisfy the higher performance criteria.

In contrast, Florida negotiated a revised timeline with the federal Department of Education that let it raise its targets in smaller, annual increments. Originally, schools were to have 53 percent of their students score proficient on state math tests this past academic year, up sharply from 38 percent in 2004. But the target was revised to 44 percent. For reading, the original target of 48 percent was scaled back to 37 percent, up from 31 percent a year earlier.

Like Hawaii, many other states saw the percent of schools making AYP targets decline this past academic year largely because they raised the bar for the first time since the law was enacted.

‘Imprecise Process’

In New Jersey, for instance, the proportion making adequate progress fell from 72 percent to 61 percent after the state raised its proficiency targets. In a press statement, Commissioner of Education William L. Librera said the stiffer targets were the “biggest reason” more schools were identified as needing improvement under the federal law in 2005.

“What that boils down to with this confusing and imprecise process is that you can have schools that make real gains in the numbers of students who pass the test, but still didn’t make AYP, because the bar just got higher,” he said.

California, meanwhile, nearly doubled the percent of students who must score at the proficient level on state tests for a school to make AYP.

“I think that’s a very important point, when you’re trying to make sense of the results,” said William Padia, the director of the policy and evaluation division for the state department of education. The proportion of California schools making AYP dropped from 65 percent in 2004 to 56 percent this past academic year.

Schools found it particularly hard to meet the new targets for some subgroups of students, said Mr. Padia, despite widespread gains in state test results in nearly every grade and subject.

In contrast, the proportion of schools meeting their schoolwide growth targets under California’s “academic performance index” rose. That accountability index focuses on the gains schools make from an initial starting point. The state has been petitioning the federal government, so far unsuccessfully, to use the index as the primary means of measuring progress under the federal law.

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to form a joint task force of high-level state and federal education officials to develop an accountability system “that meets the needs of both California schools and the federal government.” The federal Education Department has agreed to participate, but has not yet named the individuals who will serve on the task force.

Another big difference from one state to another is the number of students who must be in a subgroup before they factor into the accountability equation.

In New Jersey, for instance, a subgroup need only contain 20 students for it to count in calculating adequate yearly progress. “That continues to be a thorn in our side, and I think, for a lot of our colleagues around the country,” said Isaac Bryant, the state’s assistant commissioner for student services.

Subgroup Size a Factor

Florida used to have a subgroup size of 30. But, following negotiations with federal officials, each subgroup now must constitute 30 and at least 15 percent of a school’s enrollment or 100 students.

That change “probably helped a number of schools look better in terms of AYP,” said David N. Figlio, a professor of economics at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “Prior to the rule change, the cards were really stacked against Florida schools,” he said.

Hanna Skandera, the deputy commissioner of accountability, research, and measurement for the Florida Department of Education, said: “Number one, our schools are improving. So that’s the good news, right off the bat.”

In 2004-05, Florida saw significant gains in the proficiency rates of African-American, Hispanic, and white students on reading and math tests given in grades 3-10.

But Ms. Skandera agreed that the extra flexibility from the federal government affected the number of schools making AYP. Like a number of other states, Florida also received one-year flexibility to count more of its special education students with moderate disabilities as proficient on state tests.

Florida was testing students in grades 3-8 even before President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law in January 2002. But that’s not true in many other states.

As those states add tests in more grades, schools are likelier to exceed the threshold for individual subgroups to count for accountability purposes. The result: Schools have many more targets to meet.

“There are up to 37 separate ways in which a school can miss making AYP,” said Keith Rheualt, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction.

In 2004-05, Idaho added state tests in grades 5 and 6, testing about 38,000 more students than the year before. It also increased the percentages of students who must score at the proficient level to make adequate progress, from 66 percent to 72 percent in reading and from 51 percent to 60 percent in math.

And it instituted a minimum graduation rate as an additional benchmark for high schools. The proportion of schools making AYP dropped from 82 percent in 2004 to 57 percent in 2005.

Indiana also doubled the number of students and grade levels tested in 2004-05. The expansion of the testing program to all of the grade levels required by the NCLB law “drastically increased the total number of AYP targets” that schools had to meet statewide, said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education.

Whether the public will understand the nuances behind why schools fared better or worse this year than last under the federal law remains to be seen.

“We have two daily papers,” Mr. Knudsen of Hawaii said. “One played it up like the glass was half-empty; the other like the glass was half-full. So it’s kind of confusing.”

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