States argue schools can't measure up
'No Child Left Behind' mandates that each racial and
demographic subgroup of students show annual improvement on
by Michael A. Fletcher, Washington Post, January 2,
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NEW ORLEANS - State education officials are warning that a new
federal education law's requirement that each racial and
demographic subgroup in a school show annual improvement on
standardized tests will result in the majority of the nation's
schools being deemed failing.
The likelihood that the law would force them to label the
majority of their schools "low performing" is complicating
efforts by state educational officials to meet a Jan. 31
deadline for submitting plans for implementing key parts of
the federal "No Child Left Behind" law.
They say federal regulations outlining how to assess the
quality of schools are dangerously arbitrary and inflexible
and will result in schools being treated as failures -- even
if they are improving by most measures.
"I don't know of any state that isn't facing pretty staggering
numbers in terms of schools not meeting" the new law's
requirements, said Michael Ward, superintendent of schools in
North Carolina and president of the Council of Chief State
"A piece of legislation that we think has very worthy goals
risks being undone by its own negative weight."
State officials, most of whom are struggling with deep budget
problems, worry that the law will overtax their limited
resources by forcing them to channel extra money to schools
that may not need it, while causing a public relations
nightmare for otherwise improving schools that fall short of
the federal government's requirements.
"What happens is you create a situation where there are so
many schools failing that there is no support for them," said
Paul Houston, executive director of the 14,000-member American
Association of School Administrators.
"The administration likes to talk about the soft bigotry of
low expectations and how this law fights that. But what about
the hard bigotry of high expectations without adequate
Officials have pleaded with the federal government for
flexibility, but their requests have been brushed aside by the
Education Department, which says the law is written in a way
that leaves them no choice.
"Only if we hold schools and school districts accountable for
the improved achievement of all students will we meet the goal
of leaving no child behind," Education Secretary Roderick
Paige said upon releasing final regulations for the law in
Under the federal law, schools deemed failing for two
consecutive years must facilitate student transfers to better
schools -- even those filled to capacity -- and use public
money to provide private tutors for students.
If a school continues to be labeled failing, it ultimately
must have its principal and teachers replaced or be reopened
as a charter school.
President Bush calls the law "the cornerstone" of his
administration's domestic policy.
Its chief goal is to raise student achievement and close the
school performance gap separating white, Asian and
middle-class students from underperforming minority and poor
The law, which Bush signed last January, requires schools to
test students in grades three through eight.
Students must make steady progress toward raising achievement
levels on the exams, with all students required to reach
state-defined proficiency levels in reading and math by 2014.
The problem being cited by many state and local officials is
that the law also requires school systems to raise the
achievement levels of students in each of five racial and
ethnic subgroups, as well as among low-income students, those
with limited English skills and disabled students every year.
Any deviation from steady improvement in any of the subgroups
for two consecutive years results in a school being called
Accountability experts say that requirement, coupled with the
year-to-year deviations that typically occur in standardized
test results, means that schools would often be deemed
low-performing for what amounts to statistical -- rather than
educational -- reasons.
If two subgroups fail to make sufficient progress in each of
two consecutive years -- for example, disabled students one
year and low-income students the next -- the Education
Department requires that the entire school be labeled
Also, under the law, two schools with similar test scores can
end up with different labels, depending on the patterns of
improvement in their scores.
If a school, for example, makes dramatic improvement one year,
then lags slightly for two more years, it is labeled
"low-performing." A school making slow but steady progress in
all subgroups is fine under the law.
"Even in large schools, you are dealing with small numbers of
students in some of these subgroups," said Richard Hill,
executive director of the National Center for the Improvement
of Educational Assessment, a consultant for 10 states
developing accountability plans.
"There is a strong likelihood that a school's scores will go
up and down based solely ... on the performance of just a
small handful of students."
That complaint is being registered by states nationwide. North
Carolina's highly regarded school accountability system is
credited with significantly lifting student achievement while
showing promising signs of closing racial and economic
achievement gaps -- the goals articulated in No Child Left
But the most optimistic estimate is that 60 percent of the
state's public schools will be deemed failing once the federal
law is fully implemented.
"North Carolina has made some of the best academic progress in
the nation," said Ward, the state's schools superintendent.
"It is counterintuitive that in a state that has done this
that 60 percent of the schools can't meet the federal
standard. But we attribute that to a federal formula that
doesn't make a lot of sense."
Kentucky officials also are struggling to develop a plan,
despite having a school accountability system hailed by
experts as among the nation's best. Now, they must make
significant changes to accommodate the federal mandates.
"At best, I think the law is an unwarranted intrusion into
state and local control of schools," said Bill Weinberg, who
quit the Kentucky Board of Education in November in protest of
the federal law.
"At worst, it is a cynical attempt by the Bush administration
to build in failure and use that as an argument for vouchers.
In Louisiana, education officials are refusing to gut their
accountability system -- which has been widely praised for
beginning to alter the state's image as an educational
backwater -- to satisfy federal demands.
In statistical models developed by education officials, as
many as 85 percent of Louisiana's public schools would be
deemed low-performing under the federal law within three years
-- an outcome state officials say does not square with the
educational improvement they have witnessed since implementing
a state accountability system five years ago.
Although Louisiana has the nation's second-highest rate of
child poverty and the highest percentage of students enrolled
in private school, its public school test scores have improved
sharply in recent years.