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Duncan’s 82% NCLB Failure Prediction Way Off Base, New Data Show

By Michele McNeil — December 15, 2011 3 min read
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Remember when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued the warning that 82 percent of schools would fail to make the grade this year under the No Child Left Behind Act, and hoped that would spur Congress to rewrite the law?

Well, the researchers (or politicians!) behind Duncan’s prediction clearly are “in need of improvement,” based on one group’s analysis.

The real number, according to today’s latest report from the Center on Education Policy: 48 percent.

That’s how many schools are estimated to have failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB during the 2010-11 school year. The proportion is up from 39 percent the year before, but nowhere close to Duncan’s 82 percent prediction. (This year’s number could change by a percentage point or two, CEP researchers say, because some states are still finalizing their numbers and working through appeals from individual schools.)

Duncan’s team missed the mark by 34 percentage points!

“Unfortunately, their estimate is off,” said CEP President Jack Jennings. Regardless, he added, the increase in schools failing to make AYP “shows that NCLB needs to be changed.” What’s more, he said, the administration is justified in issuing waivers.

Under NCLB, the number of “failing” schools is expected to escalate each year as the country gets closer to the 2013-14 school year deadline for all students to be proficient in math and reading.

Duncan used this 82 percent figure number as a scare tactic to try to goad Congress into reauthorizing the law. It didn’t work, and now his department is issuing waivers from key elements of NCLB. At the time, education policy experts on both sides of the political aisle were critical of this intimidating prediction, which some said would only serve to create an atmosphere of fear and damage the department’s credibility.

Duncan said yesterday in a statement 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. “That’s why we’re moving forward with giving states flexibility from the law in exchange for reforms that drive student success.”

[UPDATE 12:20 P.M.:] It’s also worth pointing out that it’s possible states made changes to their cut scores or academic targets after the Education Department made its estimates. Take Delaware, as one example. In 2010, 60 percent of schools did not make AYP. This year, the failing number plummeted to 17 percent. Did schools improve that much in one year’s time? Probably not, and that improvement is more likely attributed to state officials moving the bar lower as they instituted a new test. In addition, a few states (think Montana and Idaho), successfully lobbied federal officials to freeze their achievement targets at last year’s levels, meaning there would be fewer new schools added to the failing list. So if it had not been for changes like this, the AYP failure rate might have gotten somewhat closer to Duncan’s 82 percent estimate.

In fact, only three states, plus the District of Columbia, actually hit or exceeded Duncan’s estimate on failure to make AYP: the District, at 87 percent; Florida; at 89 percent; Missouri, at 88 percent; and New Mexico, at 87 percent.

On 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.

Importantly, the report notes that this 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, cut scores, student demographics, and the academic targets.

This discrepancy, Jennings said, “shows the wisdom of having common academic standards and common tests.”