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NCLB Outrages

Slander Alert - The No Child Left Behind Act Rears Its Ugly Head

Ohanian Comment; Much of this analysis is on target but the author doesn't seem to see the corporate agenda.

by Gordon Brumm

See Part 1
of the Lakewood Observer’s Look at NCLB

Part Two

Parents of students in the Lakewood public schools have been receiving a letter from the State Department of Education stating that Lakewood is in need of “District Improvement.”

On October 7, however, the State Board of Education delivered a diametrically opposed appraisal. In a letter that began “Congratulations,” the district was commended for its “exemplary performance” and advanced to the designation of “Effective.”

What accounts for this discrepancy?

It’s this: The more recent letter of censure was mandated by the federal government in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that school districts meet certain standards – standards much stricter than the Ohio standards – or risk losing federal funds. Under NCLB provisions, the state must exact severe penalties if the standards are not met. (And they are severe. If a district fails to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for four years, the state must institute a new curriculum, replace key district personnel, establish alternative governance for particular schools, appoint a receiver or trustee, or withhold Title I funds.)

So what was it that brought down the wrath of the feds?

Under the NCLB school districts are rated not as wholes but on the basis of a number of categories defined by ethnicity, economic status, and ability, as well as the two subject areas of reading and math. Lakewood must deal with 112 categories. (Different districts have different numbers of categories -- about which more later.) The enormous number of categories results from the fact that categories cut across each other; any student is in at least two categories (racial and subject-matter) and possibly in several.

Of the 112 categories, Lakewood was deficient in two, “Students with Disabilities” (Special Ed) and Math. (Actually this was just one group of students, Students with Disabilities, but they have to be counted also under Math, the subject category they were deficient in.)

In short, the entire district was condemned for failure with a small number of students whose needs and abilities are markedly different from those of the rest. Alternative measures narrowly targeted to the specific problem (e.g., more attention and more funding for Special Education) made no appearance. And of course the district’s good work in launching the rebuilding program and in other directions was ignored.

Meanwhile, the district did well by the more broadly-based state standards, as attested by the “Effective” designation. A glance at the 2004-2005 Report Card shows that on the broadest measure, Performance Index Score, the district scored a 93.9 (up from 87.6 the previous year). In terms of “State Indicators” (defined by subject and grade), the district exceeded the required 75% level in 14 out of the 23 measures, and in the other nine Lakewood exceeded the score of the typical “Similar District.” The overall picture is one of appreciable achievement and improvement; the deficiency in the two categories is definitely not the tip of an iceberg.

The letter announcing the “District Improvement” rating was accompanied by a letter from Superintendent David Estrop, in which, among other things, he pointed out that NCLB was “stacked against large school districts with diverse populations.” In support of his argument, Estrop cites a study by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, authored by Christopher A. Tracey, Gail L. Sunderman, and Gary Orfield.

The Harvard report, titled ”Changing NCLB District Accountability Standards: Implications for Racial Equity” summed up as follows:

“NCLB district accountability has a disparate impact on districts with large low-income and minority populations…..NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) mechanism, which is used to identify districts for improvement, contributes to these disparities in three ways:

”AYP subgroup rules make it harder for diverse and large districts to make adequate progress because they must meet more performance targets than more homogeneous districts and smaller districts. AYP’s reliance on mean proficiency, which requires all students to reach the same proficiency levels in reading and mathematics, fails to take into account the starting point for each district…..AYP’s participation rate requirements can result in high performing districts being identified for improvement….”

It is the report’s first complaint – bias against large and diverse districts due to greater numbers of performance requirements – that Estrop is most interested in. Here some additional explanation is in order.

As I mentioned above, the student body of each district must be divided into categories based on ethnicity (African-American, Hispanic, White, etc.), economic status, and ability (Limited English Proficient, Students with Disabilities).

Enter a key point: If the number students in a given category within a district is less than a certain minimum threshold number (45 for students with disabilities, 30 for all other categories) then no requirements are placed on the district for that category; in other words, the district is not accountable for that category of student, and for NCLB purposes it doesn’t exist. For example, if a district had only 20 Students with Disabilities, no requirement would be placed against that category; a big “NR” (Not Rated) would appear against that category on the progress report. (Lakewood has “NR”s for two categories, American Indian/Native Alaskan and Asian/Pacific Islander.) This is why I said above that different districts have different numbers of categories.

The resulting bias against diversity and larger size is evident:

If a district is less diverse, it will have fewer students in minority categories; thus fewer categories will have the minimum threshold number of students. So a more homogenous district will have fewer categories to be concerned with and at least some of its more challenging students can be ignored for NCLB purposes.

If a district is small, even if diverse, it will tend to have fewer students in each category. Thus it will probably have fewer categories in which the number of students reaches the minimum threshold number, with the same result as in the case of less diversity.

The Harvard study succinctly sums it up: “Since diverse schools contain more subgroups than their peers, they have many more ways to fail.”

Thus the smaller and less diverse districts are able to ignore some of the same types of student that offer the greatest challenges for the larger and more diverse districts such as Lakewood’s. Estrop puts it this way: “I think we have an obligation to do the very best we can for all of the students. Unfortunately, the measures used in NCLB exclude some children and some districts from being held accountable for education of all the children.”

And we might note in passing that the districts benefiting from the bias against diversity and large size are the outer suburbs and small towns.

Suppose that the bias in the NCLB against diversity and large size did not exist. Suppose all districts were judged on the same basis. We would surely witness a different view of the smaller and more homogenous districts. In all probability, instead of a picture of failing urban and pristine suburban districts, we would be getting a picture of districts “failing” everywhere, due to an arbitrary and capriciously severe rating system. Further, we would be getting a different reaction to the NCLB itself – the hue and cry against its provisions would be even greater than it is now, as those districts now privileged to escape its lash would join in.

So put away for the moment all the doubts about standardized testing in general; accept the No Child Left Behind Act on its own terms. It still has, as Superintendent Estrop put it in his letter, “a fundamental flaw” in its bias against large and diverse districts. That, along with the severe penalties it imposes and the inadequate funding it offers, have led some to suspect that its underlying purpose is not to aid the school systems of core cities and inner suburbs (presumably its chief target, given that “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is most prevalent there), but rather to set them up for failure.

— Gordon Brumm
Lakewood Observer


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