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While the U.S. Department of Education warns that a majority of schools are falling behind in meeting the student-progress targets required under the No Child Left Behind Act, a new analysis suggests that students who participate in the law’s largest education program, the Title I program for disadvantaged students, are making strides in mathematics and reading.
In a study released this month, the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank, analyzed the mean test scores as well as the number of students achieving grade-level proficiency in math and reading in 19 states with at least three years of student-testing data between 2002 and 2009. Researchers found that students in the Title I education program for students in poverty improved in math and reading during the 2002-2009 time span in most states with sufficient test data.
“A lot of people have found it fashionable to say that Title I doesn’t work,” said Richard M. Long, the executive director for government relations for the Washington-based National Title I Association. “Well, this says there are indications we are making progress. The real question is how can we make more progress and faster.”
The study also noted that across 4th and 8th grades and high school, more states narrowed the achievement gaps between Title I and non-Title I students than widened them. In Tennessee, for example, 88 percent of 4th grade Title I students reached proficiency in reading by 2009, compared with 95 percent of non-Title I students. But gaps in other states, such as Massachusetts, were large: 64 percent of non-Title I 4th graders in that state and only 31 percent of their peers in Title I performed at a proficient level in reading.
The number of students in Title I, the federal poverty education program, has risen since 2005, in part thanks to more districts creating schoolwide Title I programs for schools with 40 percent or more of students in poverty. Nonwhite Hispanic students now account for the largest population of students in the program.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Jennifer R. McMurrer, a CEP research associate and a co-author of the study, said she was surprised to find that while Title I students continue to perform well below non-Title I students in math and reading, the gaps are smaller than those between poor and more-affluent students generally. Test-score gaps between participating students and those not in Title I narrowed in both subjects in grade 8 and in high school in a majority of the states studied.
“We looked very specifically at instances where gaps widened, and in many cases both of those groups were showing improvement, but the non-Title I students were growing faster. To me it was encouraging news for the program,” Ms. McMurrer said.
Title I, created in 1965, is both the oldest and largest federal education program. It awards grants to states and districts to provide supplemental instruction to put students in poverty on an even playing field with their wealthier peers. It provides money to districts based on the number of students in poverty who live in their enrollment area, and can be used for a wide variety of activities, including supplemental instruction, smaller class sizes, enrichment materials and so on. Title I provided more than $14.4 billion in grants to school districts in 2011, not counting the $10 billion in supplemental money that was awarded through Title I for 2009 to 2011 under the financial stimulus law.
According to federal Education Department estimates presented at a recent National Title I Association meeting in Washington, the number of schools providing services via Title I rose by more than 5,000, to 56,625, from 2005 to 2010, and the number of students participating in the program jumped by more than 3.4 million, to 21.3 million, during the same time. Nonwhite Hispanic students now make up the largest proportion of Title I students, nearly 36 percent, and English-language learners now account for 15.6 percent of all students in the program.
“They have more kids from poverty and language-minority populations that have entered into Title I, and yet you are seeing progress being made with closing the gap, so that’s certainly positive,” said Zollie Stevenson Jr., an associate professor of educational administration and policy at Howard University in Washington, and a former director of the federal Title I program under Democratic and Republican administrations.
Mr. Long said the NCLB law has been in place long enough that researchers may finally be seeing the cumulative effects of its requirements for Title I schools, such as more stable annual testing and minimum credentials for all teachers. Yet he cautioned that the CEP’s analysis does not dig into more nuanced data on the differences between states that saw gains and those that didn’t.
“We should look at those 19 states and find out, in some depth, what they are doing, because their various practices seem to be indicating that there are solutions,” Mr. Long said.
The CEP report comes as policymakers debate what form Title I will take in the next authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind law. Under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Education Department has favored competitive grants such as Race to the Top over formula grants like Title I, which go to all states, to drive school improvement. Yet Mr. Stevenson said he doubts any competitive grants will replace Title I as the main federal education program in the next ESEA reauthorization.
“Several generations of us will be dead before that happens, because formula grants are bread and butter for Congress members’ districts,” Mr. Stevenson said. “I don’t think the administration is going to win on that. We’ll just have to see what happens over time.”
Rather, Mr. Stevenson thinks the next iteration of Title I will become stricter in how districts apportion money among elementary, middle, and high school students. The Education Department estimates that 59.1 percent of Title I students were in kindergarten through 5th grade in 2010, with 20.5 percent in middle school, 17.3 percent in high school, and the rest in preschool or ungraded schools. The CEP study found that 71 percent of eligible elementary schools receive Title I money, compared with 40 percent of middle schools and 27 percent of high schools.
A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Title I Students Making Academic Gains