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NCLB Outrages

Emerging Trends Under the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Law’s Standardized Testing System

NEA and its 2.7 million members support the goals of the so-called “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law—high expectations for every child, regardless of background or abilities. Unfortunately, the picture presented so far by NCLB’s system of test results and ratings is complex, muddled, and often misleading.

The following are key findings from a comparison of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) results this year and last year and from independent analyses of what will occur in the future:

Trend #1: More schools are meeting AYP this year compared to last year. Of the 41 states reporting the number of schools not making AYP for at least one year in 2004-05, a total of 17,831 schools failed to make AYP (see accompanying document “Data on Schools/Districts Not Making Adequate Yearly Progress”). This compares to 23,273 schools in those 41 states last school year. Of these 41 states, 32 had the number of schools not making AYP decrease (more schools made AYP), while in the other nine states it increased (fewer schools made AYP).

However, there are three important statistical reasons for why there are fewer schools are on the AYP list this year:

  • Federal rules changes. This is the first year that the three AYP rules changes—affecting students with disabilities, English-language learners (ELL), and the 95 percent test participation rule—made by the U.S. Department of Education since December 2003 are in effect. Because U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige declared that the new, slightly more flexible rules could not be applied retroactively to last year’s AYP rankings, fewer schools failed AYP this year.

  • State accountability plan changes. Many states, with the approval of the Department, amended their Title I accountability plans and implemented changes that also make it statistically easier to make AYP. Examples include the use of confidence intervals that give a wider range of schools passing grades, or a larger minimum “N” size for certain subgroups such as students with disabilities and ELL students, which means fewer schools have to “count” these students’ scores in determining AYP.

  • Same threshold to meet. In every state the percentage of students who were required to score at proficient or above on the state’s reading and math test remained the same this year as it was last year. Thus, when the same proficiency requirement is combined with two sets of easier ways to meet that requirement, more schools met the standard.

  • When these changes are taken into account, it becomes clear that comparing last year’s scores with this year’s scores is like comparing apples to oranges.

    Trend #2: More schools have been found “in need of improvement” this year compared to last year. Despite the drop-off so far in the number of schools not meeting AYP for at least one year, the number of schools failing to make AYP for two or more years has almost doubled. Of the 47 states reporting the number of schools not making AYP for two or more years in 2004-05, a total of 10,230 schools failed to make AYP for at least 2 years. This compares to 5,912 schools in those 47 states last school year. Of these 47 states, seven had the number of schools not making AYP for at least two years decrease (fewer schools in need of improvement) and 40 states had the number of schools in this category increase.

    This trend is especially significant because those schools receiving federal Title I aid for disadvantaged children that are labeled “in need of improvement” face sanctions. The first time a school receives this label, all of its students (not just low-income students or those who failed to meet the AYP standard) are eligible to transfer to another school within the same school district, and the districts must use up to 15 percent of their Title I funds to pay the costs of transportation for any students who decide to transfer. This school transfer provision is causing chaos and confusion for parents and educators, especially in districts where there are few spaces in other schools for these students to occupy (see accompanying document “School Transfer Consequences under ‘No Child Left Behind’” for examples).

    Trend #3: More school districts are failing to meet AYP than are schools. In almost all of the states that have reported information on school districts, the percentage of school districts not meeting AYP is higher than the percentage of schools not meeting AYP. Examples of such states include Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. School districts that fail to make AYP for two or more consecutive years are also subject to NCLB sanctions.

    Trend #4: Many schools that received top ratings on state accountability systems failed to make AYP. The best example is in Florida where 827 schools given an “A” rating by Gov. Bush failed to make AYP. In North Carolina, 155 schools designated as North Carolina “Schools of Excellence” or “Schools of Distinction,” suffered the same fate. In Arizona, 40 of the state’s top schools received federal failing labels solely because of the absence of a handful of students on the day the test was given. These conflicting ratings confuse parents and the public and undermine the entire concept of accountability.

    Trend #5: More and more schools and school districts will fail to meet AYP in the future. This year, the threshold to meet AYP (the percentage of students who score proficient or above) remained the same this year as for last year in many states. However, this threshold will rise in most states next year, making it even more difficult for many schools and school districts to meet federal standards.

    Independent studies in at least five states (CA, CT, IL, LA, MN) have shown that as these bars rise higher and higher, schools and school districts will find it increasingly difficult to meet AYP, and more and more will be labeled as failing. These studies project that by the year 2014—the year all students are required to be proficient in reading, math and science—between three quarters and 99 percent of all schools will be found failing to meet AYP.

    Conclusion: Many schools and school districts are seeing real academic progress, due to proven reforms such as small class sizes and teacher training and years of hard work by dedicated educators. But the law as currently constructed fails to give parents and educators a fair and accurate picture of which schools are improving and why. The law’s bureaucratic system of standardized tests, rankings, and sanctions is also interfering with ongoing efforts to boost achievement for all children and neglecting to focus attention and resources on those individual students who need the most need help.

    - From Joel Packer and Dan Kaufman, NEA; circulated with permission.

    — National Education Association



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