State and local educators say 'It's not a loophole' that is allowing them to avoid penalties of No Child Left behind Law
By Brent Killackey
RACINE - Local and state education officials take issue with Tuesday's Associated Press story that suggested they're exploiting some type of "loophole" to get around No Child Left Behind Act penalties.
The so-called loophole refers to the threshold at which schools are held responsible for the performance of subgroups of students, particularly race/ethnicity subgroups. The law gives individual states the authority to set the number of students in a subgroup which triggers a school facing sanctions for a non-performing subgroup.
In Wisconsin, there needs to be 40 students in most non-performing subgroups to trigger sanctions, which can include allowing students to transfer to a better school in the district, providing supplemental services such as tutoring and, eventually, major restructuring of the school, such as replacing personnel.
Characterizing this threshold as a loophole left some with the impression that individual districts could work with their data to make it look better.
But that's not the case, according to Linda Flashinksi, Racine Unified School District's director of communication and public information. School districts turn all of their testing data over to the state Department of Public Instruction, which produces the reports that are used to determine compliance with No Child Left Behind performance requirements.
"We are following - as all school districts follow - state guidelines regarding testing and subgroups," Flashinski said.
The DPI looks at test scores for each district and each school within that district, first analyzing the performance of all students. Then, that data gets broken down into subgroups, including race/ethnicity, economic status, English proficiency, migrant status and students with disabilities.
Not only are a school's aggregate numbers for all students required to hit NCLB performance benchmarks, but large enough subgroups are held to the same standards.
Some education analysts expressed concern over any thresholds at all, fearing that the performance of
minority students would be ignored if those subgroups weren't on the table for sanctions.
But a state education official said DPI settled upon 40 students - 50 for students with disabilities - after a statistical analysis and an examination of what would be fair. A number of 50 was established for the category of students with disabilities because of the variability in that population.
"It's not a loophole," said Mike Thompson, executive assistant to the state superintendent of schools. "It's an issue of validity and reliability in making judgments on schools based on student test scores."
Would you label an entire school of 1,000 as needing improvement if a two-student subgroup performed poorly? Thompson asked rhetorically.
And it's not like Wisconsin has ignored the gap between minority and white students. That's been the highlight of the state superintendent's recent reports on state standardized testing.
Maybe loophole wasn't a good word choice.
Loophole is defined by Webster's Dictionary as a mean of evading or escaping an obligation or enforcement of a law.
But the No Child Left Behind Act built in the very provision that states would determine what level subgroups would be considered for sanction purposes, Thompson said. And each state's plan went through an approval process with the federal Department of Education - the very folks enforcing the No Child Left Behind Act.
But what of complaints about minority students being excluded by these thresholds, as The Associated Press analysis suggested? Every student that's tested still counts toward the school's overall scores, and students who don't hit the threshold in one subgroup may still fall into another subgroup that does.
"They may be counted several times," Thompson said. "But they're all counted at least once."
Can an argument be made that schools won't respond as vigorously to minority performance unless they're facing penalties for a subgroup's performance?
But under NCLB it's still in a schools interest to improve the performance of those students because it will eventually hit them as the bar for overall school performance is raised.
By 2014, NCLB requires that all students in a school be proficient in reading and math.
At that point, worries about thresholds for subgroups will be moot.
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