Federal Dateline

Adding Common Sense to NCLB

by Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, policy analyst, AASA

School leaders now have been through two full years of implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. First we had the long wait for regulations and guidance. Then, slowly, accountability plans emerged, like shapes in the fog, giving us a slightly clearer picture of what implementation of this law would really look like.Then one state after another, often following a long struggle to get test score data back from testing companies and analyzed in time for the beginning of the school year, released data on Adequate Yearly Progress based on those accountability plans.

For the first time we saw the implications of the states’ key decisions about subgroup sizes, the effects of disaggregating data and being held accountable for each subgroup of students, and the impact of having dozens of targets to meet simultaneously.

Each school now must meet specific achievement goals for each grade tested, each individual subgroup as well as participation goals. Some schools had more than 20, 40 or 60 different targets to meet. And guess what we observed? Size matters. A small subgroup size can result in more schools being identified as not making adequate yearly progress. So does the use of a confidence interval (statistical testing or use of a margin of error in gauging whether a group reached its target) in determining whether a subgroup attained AYP. And many states are re-examining their plans with an eye to these facts.

Chief Concerns

But what also became clear as the implementation of the law lumbered forward and superintendents and their staffs everywhere rolled up their sleeves and labored through the details was that some elements of the law are working and others are not. As a result, states are changing their accountability plans and putting pressure on Washington to modify the law. Superintendents are coming together through their state associations to put their concerns on paper and take them straight to the top.

What’s working? More teachers than originally thought turned out to be highly qualified. Many states and school districts are making real progress in getting their paraprofessionals the extra training they need. And the focus on educating all children is stronger than before.

What’s not working? Not surprisingly, it’s a longer and more worrisome list.

At the top easily is special education. All educators want the best for students with special needs. But they also want the goals for these students to be realistic and, importantly, reflect some common sense along with the student’s federally required individual education plan. Certainly, some students with minor disabilities can take the state tests and meet the academic standards. But many others are being held to totally inappropriate standards.

To address this, some states are learning from the experiences of others by adopting a different minimum subgroup size for students with disabilities that is higher than the one used for regular education students. Even so, the AYP requirements for students with disabilities are far from fair or appropriate, and many school system leaders are expressing this in their position papers and letters to Congress.

Another big issue relates to students with limited English proficiency. As might seem obvious, being an LEP student is a temporary condition. A student enters the school system lacking English fluency, enters a special program, learns English, passes a fluency test and exits LEP status. Yet schools are held accountable for increasing the number of these students passing state tests.

As a result, some states are looking at different ways to count students with limited English proficiency. Some states count them for up to three years after they leave LEP programs. But these statistical maneuvers don’t get at the heart of the issue. What is needed, as many superintendents have stated, is an alternate way to hold schools accountable for educating these students.

Finally, many concerns relate to the general structure of AYP. A school that misses just one target is labeled just the same as another school that misses most of the subgroup targets. Yet missing AYP by just one target is common, and over time may not represent a school’s true progress. As a result, some states whose state accountability plans did not require consecutive years of failing to make adequate progress to be in the same subject area or the same grade now are looking to alter their plans to minimize the likelihood of facing sanctions because of missing just one target—even if it’s 3rd grade math one year and 8th grade reading the next.

Other groups are questioning the practice of having the same starting points and targets for determining AYP for all grades or for all schools. Would it make more sense, they ask, to judge each school based on where it was coming from?


Inappropriate Sanctions

This leads to the primary concern about the general structure of AYP—the lack of consideration for actual progress or growth. No Child Left Behind judges schools using a snapshot of each year—this year’s 4th graders must make this year’s target. Sanctions are based on comparisons between this year’s 4th graders and last year’s. But as educators know, each group of students is unique, which is why some states track growth throughout their schooling, a model that was not permitted by the U.S. Department of Education for measuring adequate yearly progress. Yet we know from polling that far more parents and community members support judgments about school performance based on students’ growth and progress rather than just single snapshots each year.

What NCLB really needs more of is common sense. We anticipate that the number of voices airing their concerns with their congressional delegation or the Department of Education will increase, so school district leaders should track what’s working and what’s not in their communities. Over time, the picture will get clearer. In the meantime, all we can do is pursue what’s right for students.


Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck is a policy analyst at AASA. E-mail: tschwartzbeck@aasa.org