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NCLB Outrages

Built to Fail. The Federal No Child Left Behind Law Is Threatening to Wreck Public Education. That's What It Was Designed to Do

March 10, 2004-By almost any measure, Edina boasts one of the finest public school systems in the country. Even average eighth-grade students in the district post test scores that rank among the top 20 percent in the nation. Ninety-one percent of the graduates go on to college. The district is run by Dr. Ken Dragseth, who was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2003 by the American Association of School Administrators.

No wonder a community survey revealed that schools are the number one reason people choose to live in Edina.

So it was quite a surprise last year when Dragseth received a call from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke, informing him that Edina had been put on the state list of schools that had failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The reason? State records showed that three of the 53 students categorized as "Asian/Pacific Islander" in the Edina system had not taken the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments test, putting that subgroup below the 95 percent participation level required by nclb. As it turned out, the three students had taken the test--bureaucratic error was appealed in time to remove Edina from the failure list. But Dragseth is still rankled by the experience.

"We have 7,200 kids in our district. The reality is, if just a few kids in a certain subgroup don't show up for the test, the whole district can be classified as failing and put under restriction," he says. "That's just asinine. I tell this to parents and they say it can't be so, but it is. I'm an old math teacher and statistician, and I know when I've been had."

Edina got off easily compared to Franklin Elementary School in Rochester. Last year, Franklin also exceeded the proficiency standards set up by the state in compliance with NCLB. However, the school initially determined that only 59 of the 63 students in the "free or reduced lunch" subgroup had taken the reading assessment, putting it below the required 95 percent participation rate. Later it was learned that a sixtieth student had been tested, enabling Franklin to exceed the threshold. But because the school did not file an appeal within 30 days pointing out the error, Yecke's Department of Education not only kept it on the list of schools that have failed to make "AYP" under NCLB, but, solely on the basis of this inaccurate information, gave Franklin a shoddy two-star rating in both reading and math on the state report cards required by NCLB as a means of publicizing school performance. Fifty other schools who failed just one of either the math or reading assessments were likewise downgraded on the report card in both subjects.

In its report evaluating NCLB's impact on Minnesota's public schools, released just two weeks ago, the state's Office of the Legislative Auditor recommended that Yecke's department not penalize schools for results subsequently shown to be false. Yecke's response, delivered in a recent letter to the auditor, can be translated through the jargon as no dice. Claiming there are "multiple opportunities to correct school and district data prior to finalizing AYP status," the commissioner wrote that if the original error came from the school district and the 30-day appeal period has ended, the penalties will stand.

There are significant consequences in Yecke's petty decision to emphasize bureaucratic procedure over credible test results. As the auditor's report points out, putting schools and districts on a failure list can have a negative effect "on parents' perceptions of schools (and their enrollment decisions), on the morale of school staff, and on the NCLB sanctions to which schools are subject." But the experiences of Edina and Franklin Elementary are but one small byproduct of legislative actions and bureaucratic decisions related to NCLB that will surely discredit, and are likely to bankrupt and dismantle, our public education system.

Under the terms of NCLB, which President Bush has called "the cornerstone of my administration," all of the nation's public school students must be tested in reading and math every year in grades three through eight, and at least once in grades ten through twelve. Any school receiving federal Title I money (ostensibly earmarked to improve the performance of disadvantaged students) faces increasingly harsh sanctions if its test scores fail to meet state-defined standards for making adequate yearly progress. After two years of AYP failure, the school must offer students the option of transferring to another public school in the district and bear the cost of transportation. After three years, the school must also offer low-income students tutorial services through a public or private agency approved by the state. After four years, the school district must take corrective actions such as removing personnel or changing the curriculum in the school. And after five years, the district is obliged to blow up, or "restructure," the school by replacing most or all of its staff or by turning over operations, as the U.S. Department of Education puts it, "to either the state or to a private company with a demonstrated record of effectiveness."

With reasonable guidelines and adequate funding, this timetable might have been a prudent course of education reform. But as the first sanctions are just now begininng to kick in, people across the country are belatedly discovering that NCLB is being structured and implemented as a punitive assault on public education, designed to throw the system into turmoil and open the door to privatization.

Minnesota is a prime example of the carnage NCLB is likely to create. For decades, the state's education system has earned a sterling reputation by producing some of the nation's highest test scores and lowest drop-out rates. Yet in its evaluation of NCLB, the scrupulously thorough and nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor estimates that, even if Minnesota students showed a modest improvement in test scores and educational proficiency, 99 percent of the state's elementary schools would fail to make AYP 10 years from now, and 65 percent of the elementary schools receiving Title I funding would have to be "restructured." Under its most optimistic scenario for student improvement--which assumes, among other things, that the state's percentage of special education and immigrant students won't continue to grow, and that brand-new immigrants can boost their test scores just as rapidly as native-born Minnesotans--the auditor's office estimates an 82 percent failure rate on AYP for elementary schools in 2014, and the restructuring of 35 percent of the schools funded by Title I.

The closer one looks at the details of NCLB, the more ludicrous it appears. How do you create a chaotic situation in which nearly every school is destined to be labeled a failure? Let us count the ways.

Play Russian roulette with the test results

Under NCLB, students taking the assessment tests are broken down into eight different subgroups such as white, Hispanic, eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and special education. Each subgroup, as well as the school's student body as a whole, is measured according to its proficiency and participation rate on the tests. This enables teachers and administrators to better understand which students are most in need of extra assistance--and penalizes schools for not having already provided it.

Large schools that have at least 20 students in each subgroup (at least 40 for special education) can literally have their test results parsed out and measured in 37 different ways. If just one of the subgroups fails to meet just one of the standards (which include a two-thirds rate of proficiency and a 95 percent rate of participation by each subgroup on both math and reading assessments), then the school will be listed as having failed to meet AYP performance goals.

Well, there is one hint of leniency. Under NCLB's "Safe Harbor" provision, schools can be exempted from the failure list if the same subgroup can't attain the proficiency standard for two years in a row, but demonstrates progress by having 10 percent fewer students fail the test in the second year. But that removes just one potential pitfall from the dozens of possibilities through which schools can be penalized. For example, it's possible for a school to be put on the list because their "black" student subgroup wasn't proficient enough in math one year; take remedial steps to solve the problem only to be penalized again because only 94 percent of the "free and reduced lunch" students showed up for the test the next year; and then have their "limited English proficient" students demonstrate limited proficiency on the reading test the following year. Just like that, the school is facing third-year sanctions and is in danger of being restructured two years down the line.

Compare apples to oranges

If NCLB is serious about assessing the ability of schools to help students make adequate yearly progress, it's only logical to track the performance of the same individuals over a period of time. That's what the state had begun to do before NCLB came into existence, and what the state legislature has recommended for the NCLB assessments. But there are no provisions in the NCLB law to accommodate these "value-added" performance measurements. Instead, the performance of the students occupying a school on the test-taking day this year is assessed against the performance of the students occupying the school on the test-taking day last year. Brooklyn Center Superintendent Toni Johns recently stated that there is a 30 percent turnover in her district's student population every year. Not too long ago, there was at least one Minneapolis school that had a 100 percent mobility rate--more students moved in and out during the course of the year than the total population of the school on any given day. In schools buffeted by a high level of student transfers, the tests used to judge the caliber of their curriculum and, under NCLB, decide their fate, are statistically meaningless.

Make inadequate compensations for disadvantaged students

To state the obvious, students are assigned to special education and limited English proficiency subgroups because circumstances outside the classroom have created impediments to their progress. Nevertheless, NCLB initially planned to hold these students to the same testing standards as their counterparts in the white or Asian/Pacific Islander subgroup. After months of widespread criticism, the Bush administration modified its position. In December, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that special education students defined by the state as having "the most significant cognitive disabilities," such as autism or a permanent brain injury, will be considered proficient if they pass an alternative test deemed more appropriate for their intellectual development. But Paige capped the scope of this exemption at 1 percent of a school district's student population, which in Minnesota translates to roughly 9 percent of its special education students. States can ask for further exemptions, but Paige warned that they would only be granted for "small increments above the 1 percent cap," and would be restricted to "a specified period of time."

The upshot is that approximately 90 percent of a school's special education students are still being required to take the same tests and achieve the same level of proficiency and participation as every other subgroup. Otherwise, under NCLB, their school will be placed on the state's failure list.

But here's the real kicker: Under a different federal law, every special education student has an Individual Education Plan, drawn up by the student's parent, guardian, or advocate (and at age 14, the student himself), school officials, and relevant medical personnel. Collectively, they strive to create the best learning environment for the student by assessing his or her physical and intellectual capabilities, establishing specific goals and benchmarks, and determining what equipment and support staff are needed to help the student achieve them. When the law was passed in 1974, the feds pledged to pay 40 percent of these special education costs. Right now, in the wake of a significant boost in funding by the Bush administration, the federal share of the bill is higher than ever before: 19 percent, or less than half of what the schools were promised 30 years ago. If Washington were ever to live up to its original commitment, Minnesota schools would receive a whopping increase of nearly $250 million for special education every year. Instead, Washington, under NCLB, is penalizing those same underfunded schools for leaving special education students behind.

The NCLB guidelines on limited English proficiency students are less egregious but still unreasonable. By definition, those in the LEP subgroup are unlikely to score well on reading tests. At first, NCLB would have counted the test scores of LEP students who had just arrived in the country and bumped others out of the subgroup as soon as they passed the language proficiency assessment, which is less challenging to immigrants than the reading tests. In other words, NCLB would have required proficiency in reading English from students who had proven they were not proficient in speaking or understanding English.

Last November, at the behest of Yecke, Paige's department allowed Minnesota to exempt the test results of immigrants who had been in the state for less than a year, and allowed others to stay in the LEP subgroup for two years after passing the language assessment. Last month, again in response to vociferous criticism of the LEP guidelines, he extended Minnesota's relaxed provisions to all 50 states, a gesture that Paige's department estimates will reduce the number of failing schools by 20 percent.

But research has demonstrated that it can take anywhere from four to 11 years for most LEP students to master English. Even when LEP students do master English, they're at best on a merely equal footing with students who were raised speaking the language, and for whom the reading test was ostensibly designed. Twenty-six percent of students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are LEP; in St. Paul the figure is approximately one in three. And 77 different languages are spoken by students in the Osseo school district. It remains highly probable that many schools in these districts--which also contain a significant percentage of special education and free and reduced lunch students--will be labeled as failing and eventually have to be restructured because of NCLB.

Preach pie-in-the-sky perfection

For those schools lucky enough not to have enrolled a measurable amount of students in at-risk subgroups, or through Herculean effort somehow manage to otherwise avoid being put on the list of failing systems, NCLB simply cranks up its testing standards. The required proficiency rates for math and reading will inexorably climb over the next decade until, in 2014, we arrive at the theoretical endgame, where the only options are failure and perfection.

That's right: Every student in every subgroup must be proficient on every assessment in order for schools and districts to be in compliance with NCLB.

No Child Left Behind. It's the sort of grand vision that inspires lofty political rhetoric. At a recent appearance with Secretary Paige at a school in St. Paul, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman likened the struggle to have every child succeed under NCLB to the struggle for racial integration in Alabama in the '60s. It was a theme that echoed a speech given by Paige a few months earlier, when he said, "It's the duty of our nation to teach every child well, not just some of them. Yet in the greatest, most prosperous nation in the world, we had created two education systems--separate and unequal--that found it perfectly acceptable to teach only some students well while the rest--mostly minority and low-income--floundered and flunked out."

Last year, Yecke added her voice to the chorus. "If we are going to start setting public policy goals in education based on the assumption that we expect some kids to fail, I think we have a responsibility to tell parents and the public which kids we are planning on leaving out of the picture. I'm not prepared to do that."

As part of its commitment to NCLB for fiscal year 2004, Congress authorized $18.5 billion in federal Title I funds, specifically designed to assist the impoverished students Paige invoked in his speech. But Paige's boss, President Bush, requested just $12.3 billion of that money in his budget. Over the past three years, in this greatest and most prosperous nation in the world, Bush has left more than $13 billion in authorized Title I money on the table.

During last year's session of the Minnesota Legislature, Yecke's boss, Governor Tim Pawlenty, cut $185 million from the education budget, the first real-dollar reductions education has suffered in modern state history. Neither Pawlenty nor Yecke was prepared at the time to tell parents and the public which kids they expected would bear the brunt of these cuts, but special education funding and compensatory aid (the latter is meted out to schools according to how many of their students qualify for free and reduced lunches) were two of the line items that felt the pinch.

Which begs the question: Who is going to foot the bill for this cornerstone of the Bush administration?

Impose the mandate, starve the funding

As might be expected, creating an education system that does not allow a single one of our nation's students to be left behind is going to be expensive. A raft of new tests are being developed, administered, and assessed. As more and more schools inevitably land on the AYP failure list for longer periods of time, the cost of providing tutorial services, transporting students to other schools, changing the curriculum, replacing the staff, and eventually restructuring the entire school or district will steadily mount.

Now that NCLB is at a stage where schools and districts across the country are beginning to contend with the law's first remedial sanctions, many state legislators, researchers, and education officials are growing nervous that they will be saddled with huge costs from an unfunded federal mandate, as they already are in the case of special education. In January, the Ohio Department of Education released a study estimating that it will cost about $1.5 billion a year--twice the amount the state now receives from the federal government--to implement NCLB.

William Mathis, a superintendent of a Vermont school district near Rutland and a senior fellow of the Vermont Society for the Study of Education, has analyzed studies from 18 different states, which project the costs of raising test scores to meet either the requirements of NCLB or their own state standards. Nearly all of them reveal that, even with the assistance of federal Title I money, states would need to raise their education budgets more than 20 percent to raise student performance across the board. As needs outpace means and delineations of bureaucratic turf become thoroughly scrambled in this new NCLB environment, tensions have occasionally run high. There's been talk of local schools and districts suing the state for funds to implement the law, and states doing the same thing in turn at the federal level. And late last month, Paige made headlines with his comparison of the National Education Association to a "terrorist organization" for opposing NCLB.

Here in Minnesota, the auditor's report noted that it was too early in the NCLB process to make any detailed predictions about the law's fiscal impact, but pointedly added that it was "quite plausible" that its costs would exceed its funding. Meanwhile, for entirely different reasons, Republican and DFL lawmakers have both introduced legislation opposing NCLB. In defiance of the staunch support both Yecke and Pawlenty have shown for NCLB, conservative Republican Senator Michelle Bachman wants to follow Utah's lead and opt out of NCLB altogether, disturbed by the notion of "the federal government coming in and taking over our local schools and classrooms."

Meanwhile, DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling is sponsoring a bill that asks Washington for permission not to participate in the NCLB process. "I think all this lip service we hear, caring about poor and immigrant groups, is just a smoke screen for proving that the public schools are failing so they can go to Plan B, which is vouchers," she says. "If we were going to provide extraordinary intervention so we could help these children, I would be cheerleading NCLB. But instead, we've cut funding that would help address their needs. And then if the schools don't show progress, we're going to obliterate the schools? No, it's a punitive bill that bastardizes the name and intent of the Children's Defense Fund, which is where they got it from. I mean, 'No Child Left Behind.' I mean, who isn't being left behind? The kids? The schools? Who?"

City Pages is the Online News and Arts Weekly of the Twin Cities

— Britt Robson
City Pages


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