NCLB: Gaming the System
Schools seek leeway on tests
By Todd Silberman
With penalties looming next year for hundreds of public schools, North Carolina education leaders want the federal government to make it easier for schools to meet tough new standards for student performance.
The same tests would be used, and schools would still be required to meet the same targets for passing rates in math and reading among 10 set categories of students.
But through some statistical changes, schools would be given leeway in reaching the yearly performance targets required under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal law intended to raise scores and close achievement gaps.
The same kind of "margin of error" formulas that give political polls plus-or-minus wiggle room would provide schools a range within which their test scores could fall.
State education leaders say that the approach, already allowed in about 30 states, would add a critical degree of fairness in a high-stakes accountability system they say can unfairly brand schools as failing despite solid performance.
"In an instance where you're going to apply the harshest sanctions, you want to be sure that you've been fair to folks," said Mike Ward, state superintendent of schools.
Ward said the "all or nothing" nature of the federal law has forced states to look for ways to give schools some benefit of the doubt.
The State Board of Education is considering asking the U.S. Department of Education for the statistical cushion as one of several amendments to the state's already approved operating plan under No Child Left Behind.
A vote is expected within the next month or two.
Under the law, schools receiving federal Title I funds for poor children, if they fail to meet student performance goals for two consecutive years, are required to offer students transfers and transportation to other schools. After three years of lagging performance, schools also must offer students private tutoring.
Last year, 53 percent of all North Carolina public schools fell short of the federal standard, known as "adequate yearly progress." If the state had applied the statistical adjustment, 43 percent of the schools would have missed the mark.
The law holds schools accountable for the performance of minority, low-income, disabled and other groups of students. If any one group fails to meet statewide performance targets in reading and math, the whole school fails.
Even with more than half of the states applying a margin of error to school results, some education experts question a strategy that they say blunts the law too much.
In Maryland, for example, one elementary school met standards with 31 percent of black students passing math tests, despite a 41.4 percent passing rate required by the state's plan, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"I think it's gaming the system," said James Popham, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Popham said he agrees with critics of the federal law who argue that it sets unrealistic expectations for schools, which must reach 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014. But he disagrees with the tactic.
"A way to deal with a law with inequitable elements is to fight the law," he said.
Ward, though, said he's satisfied that the approach is valid.
"We understand that it's a statistically sound thing to do," he said.
He added that North Carolina already applies such a statistical "confidence interval" as part of the state's own ABCs accountability program when identifying schools that might be labeled low-performing.
"It's consistent with what we did in the first year of the ABCs," Ward said. "We wanted to add an extra level of certainty."
Others who favor the extra leeway for schools say the step is needed because of the kind of error unavoidable in testing.
"When you have a small school, with perhaps just one class at each grade level, you're not as confident as with a large school," said Karen Banks, assistant superintendent for evaluation and research for Wake schools and chairwoman of a panel that advises the state board on testing issues.
'Tests aren't perfect'
The range of scores would vary according to the size of each school and differences among test scores. The smaller the school, the wider the range. The larger the school, the narrower it would be.
Banks said she was initially skeptical of allowing the extra margin, worried that the public would view the change as a weakening of standards. But she concluded that schools can be erroneously labeled failing and suffer the consequences.
She also said her panel, which agreed to recommend the change to the board, was swayed by the fact that other states are taking a similar approach.
"We wanted North Carolina to be on a level playing field with other states," she said.
Neil Pedersen, superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, also supports the step.
"Tests aren't perfect, and there's variability of results," he said. "Before we label a school as needing improvement, we should be fairly confident that this isn't just a byproduct of the variability of test scores."
A policy expert with a Washington-based education group said states should proceed with caution, however, because some schools needing help could be overlooked.
"You don't want to identify schools [as failing] that don't need help," said Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust. "But you certainly don't want to overlook schools that really need help."
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INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES