Determining whether schools and districts are making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act “has evolved into 50 intricate formulas that vary greatly from state to state,” according to a recent report by the Center on Education Policy.
The report from the Washington-based policy group tracks changes to state accountability plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2004 and 2005, based on decision letters posted on the department’s Web site.
The federal law requires schools and districts to meet annual performance targets, based largely on test scores, for their student populations overall and for subgroups of students who are poor, speak limited English, have disabilities, or belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Schools and districts that fail to meet their targets for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for two or more years face sanctions.
According to the Nov. 18 report, “constant changes in how states determine AYP make it difficult to tell whether student achievement is really improving, because year-to-year comparisons in the number of schools making AYP are less meaningful if the rules change each year.”
For example, the center found:
• Most states now use a “confidence interval,” a statistical technique akin to a margin of error that makes it easier to make AYP.
• Nine states use some type of indexing system that gives credit for gains made at achievement levels below “proficient.”
• The number of states in which scores from retests can count in calculating AYP has risen from four in 2003 to 11 this year.
• In 2004 and 2005, a total of 23 states increased the minimum number of students needed in a subgroup before it counts for AYP purposes.
• Thirty-one states have won approval in the past two years to identify districts as needing improvement only when they miss AYP in the same subject across all grade spans: elementary, middle, and high school.
“Unable to change the fundamental requirements written into the law, states are using administrative methods to lessen the numbers of schools and districts not making AYP,” the report contends.
While the federal department’s willingness to make adjustments based on state and local experience is commendable, the center says, parents in many states would now find it hard to understand what criteria were used to determine whether a school was succeeding or falling short.
“Public support may also wither,” the report says, “if the implementation of the law is perceived as deceptive or confusing.”
The report recommends that states fully and clearly explain their rationales for requesting changes to accountability plans. And the federal government should make public all state requests for changes, including the rationales for any changes it has denied as well as those it has approved, the report says.
Another analysis of amendments this year to state accountability plans, released this month by the Council of Chief State School Officers, found that it is not unusual for the Education Department “to respond publicly and in writing only to some of a state’s requests.”
Authors William D. Erpenbach and Ellen Forte write that in “numerous off-the-record conversations,” representatives from several states reported that federal officials responded in writing to some requests but only orally to others.
“These ‘oral only’ responses tend to be denials,” the authors say, “and may not be accompanied by rationales.”
Chad Colby, a spokesman for the department, said: “We want to be as transparent as possible. We want states to feel comfortable coming to us with amendment requests, and there is a lot more discussion beyond the decision letters between staff at the state level and staff at the department level.”
This month, the department released “No Child Left Behind: A Road Map for State Implementation” to help people understand how the law and the amendment process works and to give examples. The report stresses that because each state is unique, no two state accountability plans are identical.
“While approved changes to state accountability plans are not uniform across the states,” it notes, “our criteria for evaluating and approving such changes are uniform. They reflect the department’s commitment to maximizing accountability while minimizing error in measuring school performance.”