Some States Slow to List Districts as Falling Short

April 30, 2003 12 min read
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Thousands of schools across the country are currently identified as in need of “improvement” under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. But with all the focus on individual campuses, something else appears to have gotten lost in the accountability shuffle, at least in some states: school districts.

The multi-tiered federal law contains a layer of accountability demands on school systems as a whole. Every state, each year, is supposed to identify not only low-performing schools, but low-performing districts as well. In fact, that federal requirement predates the bipartisan law signed by President Bush in January 2002.

But as with other elements in the law, compliance hasn’t exactly been seamless so far.

Of the 18 states queried for this story, officials in one-third said they do not now have any districts in the category, nor had they attempted to put together an up-to-date list for the current school year.

Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said states cannot simply start from scratch and assume that no districts fall into the needing-improvement category. Every state should compile a roster of academically deficient districts, he said in an interview this month, or have data that verifies all school systems have performed adequately.

“The law says you’ve got to do it,” Mr. Hickok said. Any state that assumes otherwise, he added, will “be hearing from us very, very soon.”

Getting states to identify unsatisfactory school systems is just one of the challenges. Even in states that have done so, state and local officials have some serious adjusting to do. Indeed, in two school systems called by Education Week because they had been deemed to need improvement, the superintendents were not even aware their districts were on such a state list.

No Clean Slate

A revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the No Child Left Behind Act has as its centerpiece a seriously ambitious goal, calling for states and districts to ensure that all students are academically proficient—based on a state definition—by the 2013-14 academic year. If a school or district slips behind in making progress toward that goal, life begins to get a little more complicated for school officials and, ultimately, could get downright uncomfortable.

Under the law, any district receiving federal Title I funds that fails to make adequate progress for two years running must be identified as needing improvement. The state must ensure that district parents are notified of that status, and must make technical assistance available. And each such school system is required to draw up, or revise, a district improvement plan.

Then, if the district fails to meet state performance goals for two more years—bringing the string of failing years to four in a row—it falls into “corrective action” and faces mandatory state intervention. The law lays out a mini-smorgasbord of options for states to choose from to turn the district around, such as a state takeover or instituting a new curriculum.

In many ways, the No Child Left Behind law builds on measures included the last time the ESEA was reauthorized, back in 1994, during the Clinton administration. The earlier version also required the identification of both low-performing schools and districts, though the new law is considered far more demanding in the parameters it sets for adequate progress.

Recognizing the pre-existing identification requirements, Congress wrote a sort of reverse grandfather clause into the No Child Left Behind Act to make sure the new accountability measures would kick in immediately for schools and districts with a record of underperformance. That is, states cannot wipe the slate clean before complying with the new law, even though the criteria for falling under the accountability measures are changing. (At the same time, Congress did give states a temporary reprieve; they were not required to identify additional districts or schools based on 2001-02 test data.)

Thanks to the no-dirty-slate-left-behind clause, students in thousands of schools were eligible to transfer to higher-performing schools this school year, consistent with federal requirements. In some cases, those students also could have access to a choice of supplemental educational service providers. Down the road, the consequences become more severe.

But in some states, officials have toted up only low-performing schools. At least six states—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Maryland, and Minnesota— and likely more, have no companion list of districts currently, irrespective of their districts’ actual performance.

In effect, they’re resetting the federal accountability clock.

In two of those states, Maryland and New Jersey, state officials said districts would be identified for improvement this summer. In others, it will take longer.

Indiana does not plan to identify any districts for about two years, said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the state education department. The state used to identify districts, she said, but put that practice on hold in 2000 for several reasons, including perceived flaws in the state’s labeling process.

She noted that Indiana this spring is establishing the starting points for district accountability, and said she was unaware that federal overseers might consider the state’s approach a problem.

Minnesota, meanwhile, doesn’t plan to identify underperforming districts until sometime in 2004.

“We really have sort of a beginning system here for accountability,” said Catherine R. Wagner, an accountability expert with the Minnesota Department of Children and Families.

Officials in a few states were under the impression—or misimpression, as it happens—that they had never previously identified districts.

All of the six states named above except New Jersey reported district figures to the U.S. Education Department either for the 1998-99 or 1999-00 school years, though not necessarily for both years, according to a federal report issued last summer. Indeed, for 1999-00, seven states reported no figure—not even a zero—to the federal government. All told, the report found nearly 2,800 districts needing improvement nationwide in 1998-99, and almost 1,800 the next year.

Lisa Y. Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said her state has heard nothing specifically from federal officials suggesting its timeline for identifying inadequate districts— 2004—is unacceptable.

“I don’t know if no news is good news in this case,” she said.

Meanwhile, California is still playing catch up.

While initial calls to the state education agency suggested some confusion as to whether any districts were currently identified for improvement, a state official said last week that California expects to have an up-to-date list of districts— based on 2001-02 test data—in coming weeks.

“We’ve been focusing for the moment on schools,” said Donald A. Kairott, the agency’s administrator of No Child Left Behind programs, “and we’re refocusing now on districts.”

Undersecretary Hickok is well aware that some states aren’t fully meeting their obligations for districts, and said the federal department would likely issue a memo or “Dear Colleague” letter soon to raise the issue.

Part of the problem, Mr. Hickok argued, is the troubled history of compliance with the ESEA before its most recent reauthorization. “As with a lot of the previous law,” he said, the provision on identifying low-performing districts “was either ignored, or poorly or sloppily reported.”

District accountability under the law also appeared to be largely a paper exercise to states, with little or no accompanying action taken.

“We intend as we go forward to make sure states ... understand their obligations with regard to districts every bit as much as school accountability,” Mr. Hickok said.

All Ears in Texas

For at least a few states, serious district-level accountability is not new.

Texas over the past decade has been applying pressure—and offering help—to both schools and districts. Each August, the state announces its ratings. For districts, the label ranges from academically “unacceptable” to “exemplary.”

“It is a big deal in Texas,” said Karen J. Case, an associate commissioner in the Texas Education Agency. “Everybody in the state is waiting to hear what the results are for the districts and campuses.”

Terry Myers, the superintendent of Texas’ Cleveland Independent School District, a 3,200-student system about 40 miles north of Houston, got some bad news last year: an “unacceptable” rating. The reason? Not enough Hispanic students passed the state’s writing test, one of several factors in the accountability system.

“Accountability is good, but the flaw I see in the accountability system in Texas ... is the fact that so few a number of students can affect the rating of so many,” Mr. Myers said.

The Texas threshold on the writing test for an “unacceptable” rating was for fewer than 55 percent of students overall, or from a particular subgroup, to fail the test. Out of 133 Hispanic students in Mr. Myers’ district who took the state’s writing test, 67 did not pass.

In other words, the district was seven students shy on one test of escaping the label.

Many more superintendents around the country may well find themselves in a similar situation, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, which also demands progress for ethnic and other subgroups.

Mr. Myers argues that the label oversimplifies things.

“The public doesn’t know all the ins and outs,” he said. “All they see is the bottom line, and when the bottom line says ‘low- performing’ ... that gives the impression that someone’s not doing right in the school system.”

State officials visited his district this winter to evaluate its programs and examine its low performance.

“It helped us validate that, yes, we are on the right track,” Mr. Myers said.

Ms. Case, the associate commissioner in Texas, was a tad more cautious. She said that the review did show that Cleveland schools were doing a lot of things right. But it also revealed a few problems, she said.

Like federal law, the Texas code requires more aggressive state interventions for districts or schools that repeatedly get low ratings. However, Ms. Case said that during her three years in office, no district has remained “unacceptable” for more than one year. For that reason, no Texas districts are currently identified for improvement under federal law.

Even in Texas, though, officials worry how the new, more rigid, federal requirements will affect the state’s system.

“One big challenge,” said Criss Cloudt, another Texas associate commissioner, “is for the public to understand that not meeting ‘adequate yearly progress’ is not necessarily being low-performing.”

Tennessee was the only state called for this story to actually have declared a district officially in the “corrective action” phase under federal law.

State officials mulled over the seven options decreed by Washington and selected No. 2: targeting the curriculum in the Fayette County, Tenn., public schools, said Julie P. McCargar, the director of federal programs for the state education department. In cooperation with district leaders and the Appalachian Regional Educational Laboratory, they are working to revamp the district’s curriculum to better align it with state standards, she said.

Ms. McCargar noted that the district made adequate progress last year and may well be free of the low- performing label once spring test results come out. It takes two consecutive years of adequate progress to get off a state’s list.

Myles Wilson, the superintendent of the Fayette County schools, a 3,600-student system near Memphis, expressed a dose of skepticism that the curriculum might be a problem. But he welcomed the assistance anyway.

“We are very excited about any help we do get from the state,” he said.

‘Culture of Accountability’

But while Mr. Wilson was well aware of the status of his individual schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, he said he didn’t know his district as a whole had been formally identified for corrective action. The state sent the district three letters about the situation over the past year, according to a state spokeswoman.

When Ms. McCarger of the Tennessee state agency was first asked by Education Week to name the district in corrective action, she was reluctant to do so, and declined to provide the name during the interview. Later in the day, she called back and identified the system.

Such details worry Craig D. Jerald, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Education Trust, an advocacy group that backs strong accountability.

“Stories like that aren’t just an aberration,” contended Mr. Jerald. “When there is a culture of accountability, those things simply don’t happen.”

A Kansas superintendent also said he was unaware that his district was on his state’s list of 19 systems needing improvement.

“I’ve never heard about this,” said James White, the superintendent of the 1,400-student Baldwin City, Kan., school district. As far as he knew, he said, the system had one school identified for improvement, though he maintained that was because of a “technical error.” There, too, the state had previously informed the district about its overall status with a letter, according to Alexa Pochowski, an assistant commissioner in the Kansas Department of Education.

Limited Choices

Ms. Pochowski said the state, because of limited resources, cannot provide intensive technical assistance to all 19 districts on the state’s list. Instead, that level of help has been offered to just one system under a pilot program.

Kansans are leery of a heavy-handed state approach, Ms. Pochowski said.

“There has never been a state takeover [of a district], and that will not happen,” she said. She added that state teacher-tenure laws would make the federal option of staff restructuring difficult.

“That’s why technical assistance is going to be such a huge issue,” Ms. Pochowski said.

Kansas’ actions appear to fall short of the federal requirements. Ten school systems have been identified for five years in a row, which means they should already be facing corrective action.

New York state, which has 27 districts identified for improvement, also draws the line at some state interventions. Ira Schwartz, who works on accountability at the state education agency, said New York now has authority to impose just two of the options in the law: withholding funds or instituting a new curriculum.

Like other states, New York is changing how districts are identified under federal law. Previously, a district there would be listed if more than half its Title I schools had been named as low performers. But under the No Child Left Behind law, districts as a whole, like schools, must be evaluated based on the performance for different subgroups of students.

In part because of the change, Mr. Schwartz expects the list of 27 districts to start swelling. He explained that each school in a district might not have enough students from a certain minority group to be held accountable, but when those children are tallied up district-wide, the system could be identified. Mr. Schwartz said the state has worked hard to make sure districts know about all the federal requirements and aren’t blindsided if suddenly the unfavorable labeling comes to pass.

“We’re hoping it’s not a surprise,” he said.


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