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State getting off easy on No Child law, report says

Note: Education Sector is not exactly unbiased. Its Co-founder and Co-director is Andrew J. Rotherham of PPI infamy. You can put his name into 'search' on this site for more information. In short, Rotherham is a bootlicker for the corporate standardisto position. That said, this report may well be correct in its assessment of what Wisconsin is doing. Readers must decide for themselves whether it's good or bad for states to protect their schools from the broad brush negative labeling of schools.

By Alan J. Borsuk

Wisconsin leads the nation in frustrating the purposes of the federal education law called No Child Left Behind, a Washington-based think tank contends in an analysis of the way states are implementing the law.

The state Department of Public Instruction has taken advantage of technical provisions and definitions in the law to minimize the number of schools and districts facing consequences because of weak performance and has done all it can to paint a rosy picture of how students are doing here, Education Sector says in its analysis.

Kevin Carey, the author of the report, created what he called "a Pangloss Index," ranking states by how they are implementing provisions of the four-year-old law if their goal was to imitate a fictional character from Voltaire's "Candide," "who insisted, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that we live in the best of all possible worlds."

Wisconsin ranks first in the index, followed by Iowa, Connecticut and Nebraska.

"The state is a modern day educational utopia where a large majority of students meet academic standards, high school graduation rates are high, every school is safe and nearly all teachers are highly qualified," if you believe what the DPI says, the report says.

"How is that possible?" it then asks. "The answer lies with the way Wisconsin has chosen to define the AYP (adequate yearly progress) standard" and other provisions in the law.

Tony Evers, deputy state superintendent of schools, took strong exception to the report's claim that Wisconsin is out to frustrate the federal law.

"I couldn't disagree more," he said. "The intent of the law wasn't to rank states on gaming the system. The intent of the law was to have no child left behind, and I believe absolutely it has brought a significant focus on that issue." He said the DPI was committed to doing everything it could to close the gap in achievement between high performing and low performing schools and groups of students.

He said everything Wisconsin has done has been approved by federal officials and "every district in the state has made a good faith effort to implement No Child Left Behind." He added that the law has had a lot of impact in Wisconsin.

"Obviously, we've never said we're an educational utopia," Evers said. "What we have said is most of our students do well. But we've also said in the same breath, every time we say that, that there is an undeniable and unacceptable achievement gap that we have to focus all our energy and resources toward closing."
Clinton aide helped found group

Education Sector is an organization founded a year ago by several well-known education researchers. It describes itself as non-partisan but supportive of holding educators accountable for success. One of its two co-founders, Andrew Rotherham, was formerly a high-ranking aide to President Bill Clinton, and Carey, the report's author, said he is a Democrat. He previously was a policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, often described as being liberal-oriented.

The U.S. Department of Education has given states some flexibility in how to define the complicated systems used in determining whether schools and districts meet the adequate yearly progress provisions of the law and, separately, what schools and districts are listed as facing sanctions under the law based on not making adequate progress for two or more consecutive years. States also have some options in deciding how to define such matters as what it takes to be considered a "highly qualified teacher."

Wisconsin's accountability system, which has been approved by federal officials, effectively includes broader definitions of what is acceptable than systems used in many other states. As a result, 99% of teachers in the state are considered "highly qualified" and only one of the state's 426 school districts and less than 2% of the state's schools did not meet the yearly progress standards for 2004-'05. The district was Milwaukee, and 38 of the 45 schools were in Milwaukee.
Technical loopholes

The report details how Wisconsin had used technical provisions, such as adjusting the minimum number of minority students a school must have before it's held accountable for that group's performance, and rules that effectively give a wide margin of error in judging a school's test scores, to minimize the negative side of student performance.

"When such allowances and adjustments are combined, multiplied and layered on top of one another to the degree found in Wisconsin, they have the effect of opening every safety valve in the AYP system until pressure on schools and school systems to improve is exhausted," the study says.

In some states, the "highly qualified teachers" rate was under 50% and more than half of all schools were labeled as not making adequate yearly progress.

Evers said the number of schools in Wisconsin not meeting the improvement standards under the law is expected to get larger as the bar is raised over time for judging schools. DPI is expected to release a new list of such schools within several weeks.
Researcher's skepticism

In an interview, Carey said he agrees that Wisconsin generally is a high-performing state in educating students, "but I do not believe its performance is as good as it says it is." He said the way school officials have dealt with the federal law shows "a clear pattern where Wisconsin consistently refuses to challenge itself."

He compared Wisconsin with Massachusetts, which he said also has high performing students. That state was ranked 39th in the "Pangloss Index," because it has taken a much tougher line on such things as defining "highly qualified" teachers to require demonstrated knowledge in the subject area being taught. Wisconsin has generally defined such teachers by whether they have state licenses.

In a separate analysis, two researchers connected to an education magazine called Education Next analyzed the differences between the percentage of students in each state listed as proficient or better in reading and math on the state's own tests and the percentage in the same categories in the nationwide testing program called the National Assessment of Education Progress. In many states, there is a wide disparity between the two, leading some to argue that states are setting proficiency standards too low.

The two researchers, Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess, both generally described as conservatives, then gave each state a grade based on how big a difference there was between the state scores and the national scores. The two gave Wisconsin a grade of C-, based on 2005 results. That was better than the D they gave the state for results in 2003.

Overall, states ranged from five states and the District of Columbia with A's to Oklahoma and Tennessee with F's.

To read the Education Sector report, go to: www.educationsector.org/analysis/analysis_show.htm?doc_id=373044. To read the Education Next article, go to: www.educationnext.org/20063/28.html.

— Alan J. Borsuk
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel


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