Schools Struggling to Meet Key Goal on Accountability

By David J. Hoff — December 19, 2008 8 min read
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Almost 30,000 schools in the United States failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act in the 2007-08 school year. For states with comparable data for the 2006-07 school year, the number of such schools increased by 28 percent.

Half those schools missed their achievement goals for two or more years, putting almost one in five of the nation’s public schools in some stage of a federally mandated process designed to improve student achievement. The number facing sanctions represents a 13 percent increase for states with comparable data over the 2006-07 school year.

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Of those falling short of their academic-achievement goals, 3,559 schools—4 percent of all schools rated based on their progress—are facing the law’s more serious interventions in the current school year. That’s double the number that were in that category one year ago.

States have been releasing data on the number of schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, since last spring. But the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, part of the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week, is the first research organization to verify AYP results for the 2007-08 school year, and Education Week is the first entity to publish the results.

The research includes AYP data from 47 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana, Nebraska, and New York have not released their final AYP determinations for the 2007-08 school year.

Failure Inevitable?

The rising number of schools failing to make AYP under the law is inevitable, its critics say, because of what they see as the law’s unrealistic requirement that student achievement rise on a pace so that all students are proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings have been steadfast defenders of the proficiency goal, but President-elect Barack Obama and Congress may revise or extend the goal as they work on renewing the NCLB law, as they’re scheduled to do in the upcoming congressional session.

“The system is going to systemically make sure that every school fails,” said William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, an administrative unit for 11 local school boards in Vermont.

“The increases that are demanded by No Child Left Behind are way larger than anything we’ve ever seen in the past or that you see in other countries,” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at University of Colorado at Boulder, who has argued that all U.S. schools will fail to make their achievement goals between now and the target date.

But supporters of the NCLB law say that the numbers suggest that the law has spurred many schools to take steps to improve.

The relatively modest increase in schools subjected to the NCLB law’s sanctions by missing their achievement goals for two or more years suggests that educators are taking action to address the problems in such schools, said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank. The panel of educators and advocates released a high-profile report in 2007 proposing ideas to refine the federal law.

“When the problems are a matter of focus, schools seem to be agile in dealing with them,” Mr. Huggins said. “I wonder if anything would have changed in these schools absent” the pressures from the law, he said.

Early Identification

The law’s accountability measures probably have spurred some school officials to address problems that otherwise may have been neglected and could have become worse over time, another of the law’s supporters said.

“The sooner they’re identified, the sooner they can take remedial action,” Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, said of low-performing schools.

President Bush and other champions of the No Child Left Behind law were planning to celebrate the seventh anniversary of its signing by Mr. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002. The law, which the president made one of the top domestic priorities of his administration, is an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed by Congress in 1965.

Under the NCLB law, the most important factors in determining whether a school makes AYP are scores on reading and mathematics tests, given annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

To make AYP, a school must meet achievement targets for its student population as a whole and for each several demographic “subgroups,” such as racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and those who are eligible for services as English-language learners.

Schools’ AYP goals are set by their states based on meeting the law’s overall goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

States’ Choices

While the national data suggest a steady increase in the number of schools failing to make their achievement goals, state-by-state results show that states’ policy decisions can skew the results.

In South Carolina, for example, 80 percent of public schools failed to make AYP in the 2007-08 school year, the highest proportion of any state. Part of the increase can be attributed to the addition of new schools being rated for AYP.

“It was an exceptionally big jump this year,” said Jim Rex, the state superintendent.

The high rate is partially the result of the state’s decision to set standards that are more challenging than those of most other states. Researchers have identified South Carolina and Massachusetts as having the most challenging standards, typically by comparing the results of their state tests with their students’ results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally sponsored tests of a sampling of students.

“If you’ve got high standards, you’re going to hit a ceiling effect [when increasing student achievement is difficult] sooner,” said Mr. Mathis of Vermont, whose has published several articles critical of the NCLB law.

Early Targets Set Low

Twenty-three states’ decisions to set low achievement targets in the early years under the law also contributed to sharp increases in the number of schools failing to reach AYP in the 2007-08 school year. Those states assumed that they would be able to ramp up student achievement by the 2007-08, but the AYP results don’t reflect that.

California, one of those states, had a dramatic increase in the percentage of schools failing to make AYP, from 34 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 48 percent in 2007-08.

Other states have designed a path to universal proficiency with periodic increases in their achievement targets. Every three years, the target for student proficiency makes a big jump, creating a graph that looks like a staircase. (“Steep Climb to NCLB Goal for 23 States,” June 4, 2008.)

Mr. Mathis said that’s probably the main reason the proportion of Vermont schools failing to make AYP slightly more than tripled, from 12 percent in 2006-07 to 37 percent in the 2007-08.

The process of identifying schools for improvement and the terminology around it are complex.

When a schools fails to meet its AYP goal for two straight years, it is labeled “in need of improvement.”

If it fails to make AYP for a third consecutive year, the school is required to offer students the chance to transfer to a different public school, the first in an annual series of steps designed to improve student performance.

In subsequent years, schools must spend money from the NCLB law’s Title I program of aid for disadvantaged students to pay for tutoring and then take steps to improve themselves.

If schools still haven’t made AYP after five years “in need of improvement,” their districts must make major changes, such as replacing the schools’ staffs or turning the schools into charter schools.

“If they’re in year five of improvement,” said Ms. Piché of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, “something is seriously wrong, and it’s almost never the students.”

To have 4 percent of schools at that stage seven years after the law’s enactment is a relatively small number, Ms. Piché said.

But state and district officials need to make a concerted effort to help struggling schools before they reach the fifth year of the school improvement process, she said.

“The longer schools are in need of improvement, the less likely they are to get out,” she said.

Turning Schools Around

Trying to fix the schools at that stage is currently the focal point of states’ work, several state officials said.

In South Carolina, where 80 schools are in the fifth year of the improvement process, state officials working closely with district leaders and higher education officials focused on improving such schools.

In working with school board members and district superintendents, the state is concentrating on recruiting effective principals and teachers to work in those schools, said Mr. Rex, the South Carolina schools chief.

“We’re doing what they’ve never been able or willing to do in intervening in schools,” he said of local district leaders.

Because the state is putting so much effort into improving those schools, it’s unable to do all it could to help the schools that are having trouble making AYP in one or two categories of students.

“We’re, in effect, ignoring a large group of schools,” Mr. Rex said.

Baltimore’s Challenge

In Maryland, where the largest portion of the state’s 93 schools in the fifth year of improvement are in Baltimore, the state is working closely with the district leadership to take aggressive action to close schools that are failing and reopen them with new staff members, said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent.

The state board of education must approve the improvement plans of schools that reach that stage.

“There’s an energy of not accepting chronically low-performing schools as business as usual,” Ms. Grasmick said. “We’re trying to ferret out the critical mass of effort needed to turn around those schools.

“No one has the answer. It’s like finding the cure for cancer.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as More Schools Facing Sanctions Under NCLB


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