Impact of ESEA on Massachusetts

The new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will put all schools whose students have not made "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) on state assessments into a "needs improvement" category and then if AYP is still not met enact a series of sanctions that can culminate in firing staff, state takeover, turning it over to private management, or making it a charter. (For details, see materials here as well as selected articles in FairTest Examiner.)

This piece explains the impact of ESEA on Massachusetts and suggests at the end a few things that can be done - a topic that needs more conversation. While it focuses on MA, I think it is relevant to most if not all states. Comments and discussion are welcome.

(It is based in part on a workshop presented by Laura Barrett of Mass. Teachers Assn (MTA), Phil Katz of Brookline MTA, and FairTest's Monty Neill, on May 17 to the annual meeting of the MTA, but Monty wrote this and takes responsibility for any errors as well as the opinions.)

Impact of ESEA on Massachusetts:

AYP means all tested students (3-8, once in high school, reading and math) must reach the proficient level on MCAS within 12 years (2013-14 school year). All students means all students except severe special needs and students who have not been in U.S. schools for 3 years and who have LEP status.
States determine their starting point by choosing the formula that produces the higher of either the percentage proficient in the lowest performing demographic group, or the percentage proficient in the school that scores at the twentieth percentile among all schools in the state. Because some demographic groups have fewer than 20 percent at proficient, Mass. will use the latter formula. Based on last year=s tests, 27% of the students at the school at the 20th percentile reached proficient. (A new calculation will be made based on this year's tests, the actual starting point).
The gap between the percentage of students who are at the starting point this year and 100 percent must be closed by an average of 1/12 per year. For Mass., that means 100 less 27, or 73, divided by 12, or a bit over 6 percent per year more students must reach proficient in every school and district. A quick look at MCAS results shows this sort of gain has not been happening.
States can use multi-year averages. This year (2001-02) is the baseline; the first target is in two years, and subsequent targets must be set at no more than each three years thereafter. Thus, there will have to be about 12 percent more students reaching proficient by spring 2004; an additional 18 percent must reach proficient by spring 2007.
Under either formula, some schools and districts will start the process below the starting point. For example, in MA there are many schools with well under 10 percent of their students at proficient. The law is not explicit as to how they should be treated, but the MA Department of Ed. is assuming that by the end of the first two years of this program, these schools and districts must have reached the starting point plus the required gain. For example, a school with 10 percent at proficient would need to close the gap to 27 and add 6 percent more per year, for a gain of 29 percent more students at proficient to ensure 39 percent of its students are proficient (the state target). The same annual gains are also expected of schools which already have most students at the proficient level. For example, a school with 80 percent at proficient must add six percent more per year. However, MA is one of the states seeking modifications of that requirement, so that high-scoring schools would have to gain, but at a slower rate.
Within each school and district defined groups B low-income, limited English proficient, racial/ethnic minority, and special needs students B must also make AYP. Each of these must be reported only if there are enough students in the group to enable statistically sound reporting. This is often taken to be 30 students, but that number is almost certainly too small to produce statistically sound data for reliably determining score gains. Since in most if not all schools, these groups have fewer students who have reached proficient, they will have to make a large initial two-year gain, much as do whole schools that are below the 27 percent line.
There is a "safe harbor" provision in the law that may somewhat minimize the effect of this provision, so that fewer schools will be identified as needing improvement. This provision requires that in a given year 10 percent fewer students in a group fail the test. This implies a rate of improvement necessarily faster than any possible statewide rate (which cannot be higher than a bit more than 8 percent), but would enable schools to not have to ensure all students in all the groups make that initial two year leap.
Small schools have very volatile changes in annual test score gains due to small numbers of students (less than 68 makes for a lot of random variation). A study of North Carolina found that there is far more "noise" than real change in student learning in the data on annual school score changes. (See Summer 2001 FairTest Examiner article on this.)

Presumably, this fact is also true for groups of students within a school. Further, the research found that schools that are more integrated are more vulnerable to not making AYP, meaning segregation is rewarded.

Congress authorized multi-year averages in part to solve the problem of erratic annual data. However, the research suggests that even three-year rolling averages will only partially reduce the problem. In North Carolina, a school which desired to predict its current year reading score gains would be better off to simply pick the state=s average score increase rather than to use its own previous four years of score changes.

There is not the slightest shred of evidence that this can be attained. Most schools will end up in needs improvement, if not in the first two years, then soon after. (Chicago anticipates having well over half its schools in the first stages of "corrective action" this coming fall, based on previous and this years' scores on the state's tests.)

The state is supposed to provide assistance to those schools. However, in 2000, the MA Dept. of Ed. identified 302 schools as both scoring low and not making improvement (this is almost certainly fewer than will be identified using ESEA AYP criteria). The state selected 8 middle schools to review in depth, and of those selected 3 that must make improvements or else. Assuming the state actually provided help to those schools, the state picked 1 percent of those not meeting standards to actually help.

The state more quietly has been doing the same in 2001 and 2002. 12 schools were picked for review in 2001, of which 9 were "cleared" and 3 remain hanging. For 2002 there are 12 more on list for review.

ESEA allows money to be spent on school improvement, but the amount available won't come close to meeting the need if the AYP rules are followed closely. The state of course can appropriate more funds - except this year it is basically level-funding, which means cuts in the real world due to raises to employees and other cost increases. There is no reason to believe next year will be better. (Many states are worse off.) While MA has increased education funding, it essentially is still just catching up to the real cuts suffered since Prop 2-1/2 was implemented. The per-pupil spending gap between rich and poor remains about as it was, though the floor has gone up. In other words, even if the MCAS were a reasonable measure (which it is not), the state is not spending what it needs to spend to provide an adequate education (contrary to the state supreme court ruling in McDuffy), it is effectively now cutting (and the Globe reports that House Speaker Thomas Finneran got the House to impose a two percent per year spending increase cap for the future, to be based on this year's hopelessly inadequate funding levels), and our "no child left behind" president wants to basically level-fund ESEA next year.

Regardless of ESEA, the state should provide adequate support for all students (as the state Constitution requires, according to the state Supreme Court decision in McDuffy). This means more money for those who need more help -- not less, as is now the case. If the state does not provide a means for rapid improvement, then the schools, especially those serving low-income students, will be at risk for sanctions.

The schedule of sanctions can be found on the FairTest website in various pieces on our national testing page. The end stage is that schools and districts face the following:
- state takes over and runs the school/district
- conversion to a charter school
- run by private management company (e.g., Edison)
- fire the relevant staff (e.g., principal and math and reading teachers)
- or some other action that shows evidence of success.

One problem is that none of these actions shows evidence of success (see articles on web for more on this). For example, the Austin, TX, district decided not to contract with Edison because they do not have a consistent track record of raising test scores (never mind, I would add, showing real evidence of meaningful improvement).

The sanctions apply to any and all schools that participate in ESEA Title I, but not to schools that do not. Perhaps districts which receive little money will simply not apply for it/refuse it, but that is not a realistic option for districts serving large numbers of low-income students. (Note that Vermont is considering refusing to apply for Title I funds.) It is also not clear what happens in large districts which receive Title I money, but do not apportion money to some of its schools, even ones that by state standards are not doing well. Are the schools that don't receive the money subject to "corrective action"? It would appear not, but this is not addressed in regulations.

Finally, as we pointed out at the MTA workshop, the need to raise MCAS scores will cause schools to become test prep programs to an ever-increasing degree. This will effect suburban schools as well as the urban schools that are now hit much harder with this self-defeating approach.

What can be done:

First, the state can do several things:

1) As it is doing, appeal to allow fewer schools to be be labeled and thus require intervention. This will reduce chaos and may allow better targeting of limited funds (assuming the state even uses the funds well, rather than just for MCAS prep). It may well also allow complacency in the face of underfunded schools.

2) The state can redefine "proficient" so as to allow more students to reach it. States set their own definition of proficient, and many have set levels that are far easier to reach than is Massachusetts'.

3) The state can provide all schools with adequate funding and targetted assistance designed to really improve education, not just boost test scores. As discussed above, this is not going to happen this year - and clearly will require a major political move.

4) To limit the educational damage caused by high-stakes tests (though not the accountability consequences), the state could do what Maine and Nebraska have already started to do, and what the other New England states intend to do, which is to develop a state assessment system that includes limited state testing and mostly local, including classroom-based, assessments. Massachusetts instead intends to add more tests to MCAS, but make them all multiple-choice. (See FairTest website national testing page and Examiner page, links above, for more on Maine and Nebraska.)

What parents and educators can do:

Educate and organize. The dangerous consequences of the ESEA must be exposed. The uproar against the overuse and misuse of the MCAS is likely to increase, so we need to organize ahead of and around that likely uproar. This means:

- educating people about what will happen with ESEA;
- exposing and discrediting the MCAS as the mostly inadequate, destructive and misused instrument it is;
- promote authentic assessment and accountability, as in the CARE/MTA plan( and shows signs of developing at least in part in Nebraska and Maine;
- develop more CARE chapters and strengthen existing chapters;
- bring more organizations into more active opposition to MCAS, via the Alliance for High Standards NOT High Stakes or other means;
- organize to win adequate funding for schools;
- reach out to those who support ESEA because they genuinely believe it will improve schools and engage with them in a dialogue about why test-driven change is not genuine reform and what real changes are needed;
- expose those who call for high stakes testing while opposing public funding to support not only schools but also the social supports children and families need (housing, nutrition, heath care, etc.) B this includes many corporations, ideologues, profiteers and politicians;
- expose those who will use the "failure" to meet AYP requirements to promote privatization of education (e.g, Mark Roosevelt, one of the authors of the state Education Reform Act, has begun to promote privatization) and expose the dangerous consequences of privatization;
- fight the Unz initiative and ensure high quality education for students with limted English proficiency.

A long list, and no doubt incomplete. ESEA will almost certainly make the situation of schools serving low-income students worse. As Stan Karp titled his article in the current Rethinking Schools, the federal government, with support from conservatives and liberals, has passed a law that says to low-income children, "Let Them Eat Tests"
( Rather than reduce inequities, ESEA will most likely intensify the creation of separate and unequal schools as it substitutes testing for real improvement and the funding to support that improvement.

Education and organization is the only answer.