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NCLB Outrages

The Coming School Accountability Train Wreck

Ohanian Comment: Schwarzenegger as the trump card for change? Ohmygod.

Before summer's end, Californians will get more troubling news about their schools. Once again, schools that a lot of communities thought were exemplary, and were listed as successful by the state, will be rated as "in need of improvement" - "failing" in plain text - under federal accountability standards.

A lot of those schools passed with flying colors last year. But because of the rising annual percentage of students in every school who must achieve proficiency, and because the increase must include students of every major ethnic and social subgroup, many won't make the grade this year.

Under NCLB, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, every student in America is supposed be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. If proficiency is to mean anything, that was always an impossible target, and it has already led to a lot of fudging.

But as the state-set curves toward the 100 percent proficiency target keep rising and the number of schools subject to the sanctions that go with "in need of improvement" goes up with them, the backlash and the pressure to modify NCLB - if not scrap it altogether - will grow.
Without changes, in fact, there'll be a train wreck that could well destroy all meaningful academic accountability systems, state and federal.

Since states themselves define "proficiency" by their own standards, some have already lowered them in an effort to avoid perceptions of widespread failure.

Recognizing the inevitable, Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, is showing some willingness to be more flexible on such things as the requirement that eventually virtually every special education student must achieve proficiency, a goal that, by definition, was as unattainable as it was noble.

California, like a number of other states, has maintained that its own "growth model" accountability system - a system that requires annual improvement in test scores and graduation rates in every school - makes more sense than the federal "status model," with its impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency.

California gives every school an API, Academic Performance Index, based on a test-score-based, 1,000-point scale, with a target that each school achieve at least an 800 on the API formula. Those below that goal - which means most schools - must improve at least five percent between their last API score and the 800-point target. (Thus, a school scoring 600 last year has to score at least 610 this year.)

That means low performing schools - many of them disproportionately schools of poor and minority kids - have to make greater numerical gains each year than high performing schools. It also means that schools making adequate gains on API may not make them on the different scale of the feds' AYP, Adequate Yearly Progress, even though both are based on the same tests.

In 2004, 321 California schools improved their APIs by doubling their annual targets for the second year in a row, but didn't make AYP.

Both systems are complicated and have serious flaws. But together, as Alan Bersin, who's just replaced the ineffectual Richard Riordan as Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger's new education secretary, has been saying, they generate hopeless confusion. That's especially so when the state labels certain schools as academic successes while the federal system calls them failures. If too many are rated failing, the whole system "could lose its legitimacy." Even now, the state's capacity to provide help for low performing schools is overtaxed.

So officials at the California Department of Education, the state School Board and now the governor's office are trying to modify the state system to make it consistent with the spirit of the federal law in the hope that eventually the feds will let the state use its reformed growth model in place of the federal system.

The proposed changes include tightening requirements for the minimum annual gains among ethnic subgroups from 80 percent of a school's overall gain to 100 percent. The 80 percent gain now required for Latinos, African Americans, English learners and other subcategories in California virtually guarantees that they'll never catch up with their non-Hispanic white and Asian classmates - and aren't expected to.

Proposals now circulating among state officials and under discussion between Bersin and California state schools chief Jack O'Connell also include an increase in the required minimum annual gain from five percent to 10 percent and perhaps raising the state's API target from 800 to 875.

California's academic standards are among the highest in the country.
Unlike some other states, California so far has not lowered them to avoid the long lists of schools "in need of improvement" that will appear in your local paper in the coming weeks.

But the pressure will grow.

The California players agree that the feds will not be especially tender toward California. When waiver requests come from Utah, Virginia or Florida, they're much more likely to be viewed sympathetically. The one card the state holds is Schwarzenegger.

— Peter Schrag
Sacramento Bee


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