State Reports on ProgressVary Widely

September 03, 2003 9 min read
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Nearly 90 percent of Florida’s public schools recently learned that they didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” under federal law this past academic year. In Minnesota, the figure was about 8 percent.

But Floridians should hold off on buying thick winter coats and packing their bags for Garrison Keillor country. The contrasting results aren’t exactly a clear gauge of the relative quality of the states’ schools.

Welcome to the education world under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law is stringent enough to give educators and policymakers a pounding headache, but flexible enough to allow wide variations across the country that may have as much to do with state policy as student performance.

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View the accompanying table, “Adequate Yearly Progress: A State Snapshot.”

In recent weeks, many states have issued lists of schools that didn’t pass muster based on the No Child Left Behind law. Those lists are perhaps the best indicator yet of what states will be up against as they seek to ensure that all students are academically proficient by the 2013-14 school year, as the ambitious statute demands. States for the first time are using new definitions, approved by the U.S. Department of Education, for what they mean by “adequate” progress.

The law poses a formidable challenge because it requires improved student achievement not only for schools and districts overall, but also for subgroups of students by race, ethnicity, income, disability, and limited fluency in English. Schools may even fall short if not enough students—fewer than 95 percent—from a particular group take the tests.

“In a lot of ways, it’s the beginning of a truth-telling process of putting disaggregated student- achievement data on the table for everybody to see,” said Ross E. Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust. The Washington-based advocacy group pushed hard for strict accountability measures in the law passed by Congress nearly two years ago.

“It’s the first time that’s happening in a lot of states,” Mr. Wiener continued, “and it’s the first time that it’s attached to accountability in almost every state.”

‘A’ Schools Fall Short

Results from state to state can be affected by an array of factors, from how a state defines “proficient” to how many students the state decides must be in a particular subgroup—25 African-Americans or 40 special education students, for example—before a school is judged on the basis of subgroup performance.

“That’s the beauty of the law,” said Ronald J. Tomalis, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Department of Education. “It allows all the different states to implement a plan that works best for [them].”

Florida’s results, which are only preliminary, have stirred considerable controversy. The state announced in August that roughly 2,500 public schools—or 87 percent statewide—didn’t meet one or more targets under the No Child Left Behind Act. The results in some instances offer a striking contrast with how schools fared under the state’s own rating system, which assigns letter grades to schools.

“We’ve got ‘A’ schools that didn’t make adequate yearly progress,” said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “It’s causing a lot of confusion for everybody.”

State officials have defended their approach. They suggest that Florida was unwilling to lower its standards.

One explanation for the contrast in Florida may be that the state ratings don’t judge performance based on the subgroups required in federal law, but do give schools points for making gains with the lowest 25 percent of students on state tests.

Taking a look at the data in Florida, Mr. Wienerof the Education Trust pointed to Banyan Creek Elementary School as an example. This A-rated school in the 160,000-student Palm Beach County district has an almost even mix of white and black students, but white students score far better.

“This is a school with big gaps,” Mr. Wiener said. In mathematics, 82 percent of white students were performing at grade level, compared with only 28 percent of African-Americans.

Statewide, about 22 percent of “A” schools failed to make adequate progress.

In Delaware, almost all school districts—17 out of 19—and more than half the public schools did not meet the targets the state set under the No Child Left Behind law.

Valerie A. Woodruff, Delaware’s secretary of education, said disaggregating data isn’t new in her state, but the consequences tied to it are.

“The big new thing is that it does indeed count for accountability,” she said.

Under the federal law, once a school that receives Title I aid for disadvantaged students does not make adequate progress for two straight years, its students are eligible to transfer to a higher-performing public school, with the district required to spend a portion of its federal aid to pay transportation costs.

The consequences become more severe for each year a Title I school does not make adequate progress. The schools also are supposed to get extra help. And states are expected to design consequences for non- Title I schools that fail to demonstrate adequate progress, although not necessarily the same penalties.

Delaware’s results have been disheartening to many educators there, Ms. Woodruff said, especially given other good news, such as recent gains by Delaware on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We had a huge jump in reading and writing” on the federally sponsored NAEP, she said.

“Superintendents and principals and teachers are saying, ‘We’re working hard, we know we’re doing better,’” she said, “but they feel like there’s no credit for improvement” under the No Child Left Behind Act.

For this past school year, Delaware’s standard was 57 percent of students from each subgroup performing at grade level in English/language arts, and 33 percent in mathematics. The state uses combined scores on science and social studies for 4th, 6th, and 8th graders as another part of its formula. For high schools, the graduation rate is factored in.

Not all states had as many schools falling short as Delaware and Florida did. Wyoming reported just 15 percent of its schools not making adequate progress; in Kansas, the proportion was 13 percent.

Minnesota’s number came out to just 8 percent statewide, or 144 schools. The state was still analyzing data for about 200 of the state’s smallest schools, most with fewer than 50 students, as well as for some K-2 schools, a state official said. He predicted that only a handful might be added to the list.

While Minnesota has generally done well academically when compared with most states, several other factors help explain the low figure, said Mark L. Davison, the director of the office of educational accountability at the University of Minnesota.

For one, after doing a practice data run earlier this year based on 2001-02 figures, Minnesota decided to double the number of students in special education a school must have—from 20 to 40—before a school would be judged based on those students’ test scores.

“The change to 40 had a substantial impact on the number of schools identified,” Mr. Davison said.

In addition, Minnesota may have been helped along because the state administered elementary-level testing only in the 3rd and 5th grades. Under the federal law, all states must eventually test reading and math each year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school.

Some Minnesota schools—especially the state’s many small, rural schools—likely found that with only two grade levels of student data, they lacked sufficient students to be counted for certain subgroups, Mr. Davison said. The fewer the subgroups, the easier it is to make adequate progress.

Florida, by contrast, already tests students each year in grades 3- 10 under the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test program.

Finally, Minnesota got into a bit of trouble with the federal government when it opted this year not to use test scores to judge middle and high schools. The state cited concerns that the exams at those grade levels were not well designed for the federal demands. Instead, the state simply used attendance and graduation rates. As a result, the federal Education Department withheld $113,000 in aid.

‘A First-Year Problem’

So far, not all states have released their data on how many schools have made adequate progress, though many states have issued at least preliminary determinations. In some cases, states have listed only schools whose students are eligible to transfer, and would issue more data later.

“During this first year, we recognize there are going to be some complexities involved,” said Mr. Tomalis of the federal Education Department. “Obviously, we would like to see the lists out as early as possible, so that parents have ... time to make an informed choice” if their children are eligible for transfer. “That clearly is the intent of the law.”

“We expect this will be a first-year problem only,” he added.

A big focus of state officials has been helping schools and the public make sense of what’s involved in measuring schools under the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“It’s very tricky,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, “trying to get people to understand that just because you’re on this particular list doesn’t mean you’re a ‘failing’ school.”

“We’re extremely concerned about maintaining public confidence in our public schools,” said Steven L. Paine, the deputy state superintendent in West Virginia, where 45 percent of schools did not make adequate progress. “We have refused to use the word ‘failing.’”

In Pennsylvania, about half of all schools did not make adequate progress, though those number were preliminary. Last week, the state was still updating its list. A final tally was expected later this month.

“We tried to be communicative,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Vicky Phillips. “We didn’t just say, ‘You’re on the ‘warning list.’ We had a number of columns: reading, math, subgroups, so that parents and communities as well as school staff could differentiate.”

Ms. Phillips said she was pleased for the most part with media coverage of the state’s results.

“You don’t always like the headline, but ... the stories were pretty fair,” she said.

Georgia was among the states where a big problem was an insufficient level of participation in state tests. Of the 846 schools that didn’t make adequate progress, 536 failed because fewer than 95 percent of students in one or more subgroups took the tests, according to Nick Smith, a spokesman for the Georgia education department.

He said officials there aim to work hard over the coming year to correct the problem.

Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, criticized the participation mandate.

“A 95 percent [participation] rate is ludicrous,” she said. “Schools are punished because kids did not come to school.”

Ms. Williams has other problems, too, with the federal law.

“The research shows that ... change takes three to five years, but we’re given two years to show any kind of improvement,” she said. “That’s not fair.”

And the problems, she said, are exacerbated by what she deems insufficient federal aid.

Despite such complaints, Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that is monitoring the law, said he’s generally impressed with how education leaders are meeting the new demands.

“Even though a number of people in state departments of education and local school districts have doubts about the law,” said Mr. Jennings, who was a longtime aide to Democrats on the U.S. House education committee, “what I find is an enormous amount of willingness to implement [it] as fast as they can and as fairly as they can.”

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