Pa. Adapts to New Federal Education Law

By Catherine Gewertz — October 08, 2003 5 min read
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One day in mid-August, Palisades High School landed in the doghouse. Six weeks later, it was out again.

Such was the journey that the eastern Pennsylvania school—and hundreds of other schools statewide—made as part of the state’s inaugural experience with the “adequate yearly progress” provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

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See the accompanying chart, “Tracking Progress.”

The school was one of 1,428—a shade over half the Keystone State’s public schools—that fell short of the state’s targets for improvement. Appearing on that Aug. 12 list officially warned the school that if it didn’t improve its graduation rate, it could face escalating consequences.

By Sept. 23, Palisades High was off the “warning” list. In an appeal to the state, the school used more recent data to show it had improved its graduation rate enough to have made adequate yearly progress, or AYP. The state’s plan required schools to show a 95 rate percent rate or significant improvement.

Palisades Middle School, which landed on the warning list with a 94.7 percent attendance rate, was removed when the state, handling hundreds of appeals, agreed to round up to its target of 95 percent if a school’s graduation, attendance, or test-participation rate was 94.5 percent or above.

Francis Barnes, the superintendent of the 2,200-student Palisades district in Kintnersville, is glad to have the schools—both of which received national Blue Ribbon honors in the past three years—off the list. But he laments the six weeks of “embarrassment” he feels were undeserved.

“Had [the state] thought some of these things through beforehand, it would not have been the trauma it was for some districts,” he said.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that have seen their AYP processes through the appeals stage. Most states still are producing or revising their first lists. But if Pennsylvania’s experience is any bellwether, states will be revising scads of numbers.

Meeting Targets

In addition to meeting the graduation, attendance, and test-participation targets, Pennsylvania schools had to meet academic targets. They had to show that 35 percent of students overall, and in such subgroups as low-income or minority students, scored “proficient” or better on state mathematics tests. The goal was 45 percent in reading. Those targets escalate until 2014, when the federal law requires 100 percent of students to reach proficiency.

About one-quarter of the schools that didn’t make AYP appealed the state’s determination. Sixty-eight percent of the appeals were granted. Eighty-five percent of the successful appeals were granted because of corrections or updates in data.

In addition to granting appeals, the state’s adjustments to data, such as rounding up totals from 94.5 percent to 95 percent, expanded the pool of schools making adequate progress.

On Pennsylvania’s first list, 49 percent of its 2,786 public schools were found to have met the AYP bar. On its second list, 61 percent did—a 26 percent increase in the number of schools deemed to be meeting the requirements.

Appeals are changing other states’ lists as well, but the degree and reasons vary. Minnesota’s first list showed 85 percent of its schools making AYP; on its second list, that figure rose to 92 percent. Most changes were due to data corrections.

In Montana, 13 percent of schools not making AYP appealed, and 29 percent of the appeals—for seven schools in all—were granted. Those appeals, combined with the state’s own review of some schools’ data, expanded Montana’s list of schools making adequate progress by 9 percent.

Most changes involved schools that had made enough academic progress to qualify for AYP under the law’s “safe harbor” provision, said state education department spokesman Joe Lamson. That provision allows schools to make AYP despite one lagging subgroup, as long as that subgroup is improving sufficiently.

‘Glitches and Confusion’

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips said her department learned a lot from the process and believes the department can minimize the number of appeals next year, in part by managing timelines so schools have the most recent attendance, graduation, and test-score data as early as possible.

Pennsylvania’s difficulty with obtaining correct and timely data is echoing in other states, said Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, a policy analyst who is tracking AYP implementation for the American Association of School Administrators, an Arlington, Va.-based group that represents district superintendents.

“A lot of states are working out data issues,” she said. “This is very much a numbers game, and states have different infrastructures for dealing with that.”

One Florida school, Ms. Schwartzbeck said, appealed its status because one student who was flagged as failing a state test no longer attended the school.

William J. Erpenbach, a Madison, Wis.-based consultant who reviewed many states’ AYP plans for the U.S. Department of Education, said he was troubled that the federal department hadn’t imposed greater uniformity on how states conduct their appeals processes. Some states have a “good, objective, systematic process,” he said, and others “have almost nothing.”

The federal department, he added, “really didn’t seem to challenge this part.”

Ronald J. Tomalis, the federal Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said that states need flexibility in setting up and applying their No Child Left Behind systems.

But appeals processes must deliver “consistent and reasoned decisions” in accord with their state plans and with the federal law, he said. The department will look at those processes as part of its monitoring of the Title I aid program for disadvantaged students, he said.

Jack F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, said schools have not begun to feel the heat in this first year that they will in subsequent years.

“This is the year of glitches and confusion,” he said. “Next year is the year of real consequences.”

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