Federal Opinion

The ‘No Child’ Noose Tightens—But Some States Are Slipping It

By W. James Popham — September 24, 2003 6 min read
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W. James Popham, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, is an emeritus professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The No Child Left Behind Act noose is noticeably beginning to tighten. If you doubt it, just ask any of the state officials who, at the close of this past summer, were obliged to reveal how many of their states’ schools had failed to hop their “adequate yearly progress” hurdles. But interestingly, a number of our states seem to have been hit less hard by the strict new federal education legislation. What’s going on?

America’s school success story, of course, will become really dire next year. That’s because the No Child Left Behind law requires any school failing to attain its adequate-yearly-progress goals for two consecutive years to be placed on a serious, sanction-laden improvement track. Yet many of this year’s schools that failed to make adequate progress had not previously been receiving funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, so they hadn’t been required to deal with “adequate yearly progress” at all. Those schools, often more affluent, have had only one school year in which to fail. Next year, however, the number of schools that will be two-time losers on the adequate- yearly-progress, or AYP, scale is certain to be enormous. And although most of this year’s failing schools were only identified, next year the parents of students in those schools will be allowed to transfer their children elsewhere.

What is most intriguing about the recent state reports, however, is the remarkable range in the state-by-state percentages of schools identified as unsuccessful. (“State Reports on Progress Vary Widely,” Sept. 3, 2003.) In some states, relatively few schools failed to achieve their adequate-yearly-progress targets. In others, 90 percent of the state’s schools took an AYP tumble. How can this be?

In explaining such variability, we must remember that the No Child Left Behind Act permits states to (1) establish their own curricular goals, (2) assess students’ mastery of those goals using state-chosen tests, and (3) determine the levels of proficiency students must display on these federally required tests. Given such state-level discretion, we should not be surprised to encounter at least some variation in the school success rates seen from state to state. Differences among the recently reported state AYP-passing rates, however, are truly staggering.

Regrettably, there seems to be another, less savory reason for the striking differences in state-level AYP-passing rates. It appears that some state officials, in order to avoid the perception that their states’ public schools are unsuccessful, have come up with devious ways to dodge adequate-yearly- progress failure.

For example, some states have lowered the test scores that the states’ students must earn to be classified as “proficient.” That’s important, because the No Child Left Behind law calls for ever-increasing numbers of students to earn proficient-level scores. If the required increases don’t take place, schools are labeled as AYP failures. State officials realize that if they simply lower what’s expected in order for a student to be deemed proficient, fewer schools will fail. Unfortunately, lower expectations almost always yield lower accomplishments-from both teachers and students.

In a second subversion ploy, some states are abusing a stipulation of the legislation that students must make sufficient progress during a 12-year, state- determined timeline based on “equal” increments of improvement. In some states, officials have devised adequate-yearly-progress timelines in which, early on, less is demanded of students. That’s because the timelines’ initial increments are spread out over a two- or three-year period. Those early, low-level demands, however, mean that the final years of these “equal increment” timelines call for huge, altogether unrealistic annual improvements by students. Clearly, such back-loaded timelines are intended to reduce early school failures in the hope that future modifications in the federal law will render it less demanding or, better yet, make it go away completely.

Some states are also subverting a No Child Left Behind Act provision aimed at improving the education of historically underserved subgroups (for example, minority students or students with disabilities). If any one of these designated subgroups doesn’t improve its test scores sufficiently, the entire school fails on adequate yearly progress. The law sensibly says, however, that if there are too few students in a subgroup to provide “statistically reliable” test results, then such a subgroup’s test scores need not be counted when calculating a school’s AYP. Some states, therefore, are requiring outlandishly large numbers of students to establish a subgroup’s statistical reliability. Clearly, the fewer chances there are for a school to fail, the fewer school failures there will be. But in these states, unfortunately, schools will never be obliged to give any extra instructional attention to the very subgroups that most need such attention.

These sorts of law-dodging tactics arise chiefly from most states’ adoption of instructionally insensitivetests to satisfy the No Child Left Behind legislation’s assessment requirements. An instructionally insensitive test is one that is essentially incapable of detecting improved student learning, even if improved learning is present. Examples of instructionally insensitive tests are any of the nationally standardized achievement tests that, in order to produce the score-spread required for their norm-referenced comparisons, invariably contain too many items linked to students’ socioeconomic status or inherited academic aptitudes. Such tests measure what students bring to school, not what they learn there.

Dodge-the-law tactics wouldn't be necessary if the states employed instructionally sensitive tests.

Other examples of instructionally insensitive tests are any of the state- customized achievement tests that pretend to assess students’ mastery of enormous numbers of curricular aims (content standards). Not only do these “standards-based” tests fail to measure what they claim to measure, but a state’s teachers never find out which particular curricular aims their students have actually mastered. Such tests are instructionally insensitive, therefore, because they (1) provide so many assessment targets that teachers really don’t know where to aim their instruction and (2) fail to supply instructionally useful results.

Happily, state policymakers can install standardized tests that are, in fact, accurately able to detect educational improvement if it occurs. If such instructionally sensitivetests are employed to assess students’ mastery of a modest number of genuinely significant skills in reading and mathematics, then the state’s teachers can both effectively and efficiently promote students’ mastery of those powerful skills. Moreover, schools will be correctly identified as “successful” or “unsuccessful” based on students’ attainment of such skills. By using appropriate No Child Left Behind Act tests, there will be no need for state officials to contrive the sorts of evasive tactics we now see springing up. If, however, states continue to use instructionally insensitive tests, get ready to witness even more innovative gimmicks used by states to elude this federal law’s accountability features.

But if dodge-the-law tactics are employed, the schools of the states using them are certain to be misevaluated. Citizens won’t be able to tell which schools are performing satisfactorily. And an accountability law intended to improve U.S. schools will produce the opposite effect.

W. James Popham, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, is an emeritus professor in the graduate school of education and information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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