Federal Opinion

Ending Accountability Loopholes

By George Miller — September 13, 2007 3 min read
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As the debate over the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act intensifies, one of the key questions we face is what we can do to improve the law’s accountability provisions. The Bush administration—which views the law as “99.9 percent pure”—favors minimal changes in reauthorization. That’s unfortunate, because—among other problems with the status quo—maintaining it would mean continuing to exclude millions of children from the law’s accountability system.

In its implementation of NCLB, the Bush administration has allowed for enormous loopholes that undermine the goals of the law.

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Read related commentary by U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.,

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For starters, the administration has permitted states to use large “N-sizes”—up to 200—for reporting on adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by subgroup.

Rep. George Miller

A school’s N-size is the number of children that must belong to a subgroup in order for that subgroup to be included in AYP calculations. If a school has an N-size of 200, and the school has 199 Hispanic students, then none of those Hispanic students would be included in the school’s disaggregated AYP calculations.

The damage from this loophole is enormous. Last year, in an exhaustive investigation, the Associated Press found that nearly 2 million students nationwide are simply left out of disaggregated AYP calculations, including an estimated 15 percent of minority students nationwide. This is an outrage. It runs completely counter to the integrity of the law. In April 2006, I joined a number of my Democratic colleagues in the House in urging U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to address the N-size loophole. The secretary took no action.

Yet the N-size loophole may not be the biggest one. The Bush administration has also permitted states to use unreasonable “confidence intervals”—essentially, wide statistical ranges—when determining how many students have reached proficiency in reading or math. Think of confidence intervals like a margin of error in an opinion poll. The larger the confidence interval, the more wiggle room states have to meet their proficiency targets.

When the Bush administration tries to cast the current reauthorization debate in terms of more vs. less accountability, don’t buy the spin.

The independent, nonpartisan Congressional Research Service examined confidence intervals and came up with some disturbing conclusions. Looking at one state, the CRS found that the number of schools that did not meet their AYP targets increased by nearly 8 percent because the state used a confidence interval of 99 instead of 95.

Despite this evidence, the Bush administration allows nearly half the states to use a confidence interval of 99, effectively the highest possible.

In August, I joined with three of my colleagues on the House Education and Labor Committee—Reps. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich., and Michael N. Castle, R-Del.—to release a discussion draft of Title I of our reauthorization bill. In the draft, we sought to close these loopholes. For starters, we capped N-sizes at 30. In Texas, an additional 31,000 African-American students would be included in disaggregated AYP calculations if the state had an N-size of 30. In California, an additional 153,000 English-language learners would be included if the state had an N-size of 30.

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., second from right, Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., right, and Ronald E. Jackson Executive Director, Citizens for Better Schools, Birmingham, Ala. , left, wait to address a business group on Sept. 5 about renewing the No Child Left Behind Act. Also speaking at the event was U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Our discussion draft also caps confidence intervals at 95. In addition, we sought to address other loopholes that cut students with disabilities and high school dropouts out of NCLB’s system of accountability.

There is no justification for the administration’s loopholes. They arbitrarily and needlessly weaken the heart of the No Child Left Behind law—accountability—and make it harder for us to reach the law’s goals of educating every child.

What we need is a smarter system of accountability. For example, our discussion draft would allow states to assess school performance on more than just reading and math tests. All over the country, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders believe we should be measuring schools more fairly and comprehensively. I agree with them. If we keep a strong focus on student progress in reading and math, but also allow additional indicators to play a role, we can have a richer, better understanding of what’s really happening inside our schools.

When the Bush administration tries to cast the current reauthorization debate in terms of more vs. less accountability, don’t buy the spin. What we should aim for is a smart system of accountability—one that doesn’t needlessly exclude millions of children across the country.


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