Muddled NCLB Trends Reflect Efforts to Rescue Embattled Law

K-12 Testing

In their struggle to stem an intense and growing backlash against the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law (see story, p. 9), federal officials continue to cut deals with states to ease the demands of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). As a consequence, the prediction that this fall’s results would show an across-the-board increase in failure rates did not materialize. However, numerous studies project that this relief is temporary and that most schools and districts will ultimately not make AYP as the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency approaches.


The AYP picture nationwide is decidedly mixed. Approximately half the states which have reported indicate an increase in the proportion of schools making adequate yearly progress, and half report a decrease. Some states saw small changes, others experienced a substantial increase or decrease.


This was the first year many states’ proficiency targets took a big leap upward. For example, Hawaii, New Jersey and California faced a much higher test score bar and saw a consequent drop in the proportion of schools making AYP.


Deals granted by federal officials boosted AYP results, considerably in some cases. Allowed to lower its bar for 2005 by reducing its AYP growth targets, Florida saw a 12 percent increase in the share of schools making AYP. Some agreements allow states to exclude from AYP calculations scores of additional disabled and limited English proficient students, a boon to district AYP results but a troubling development for many advocates of these students.


“It’s disappointing that in so many places, students with disabilities are not being counted,” said Martha L. Thurlow, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.


According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the most commonly approved requests have been raising the minimum size of demographic subgroups for which AYP must be calculated, using “confidence intervals” to include schools posting scores within a “margin of error” of the growth target, averaging test results across years, identifying districts for improvement only when they fail to make AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years, and “adjusting upward the percent of proficient disabled students in schools that failed to make AYP because of this subgroup,” which is the way DOE describes allowing states to administer alternate-level assessments to up to three percent of students and apply their results toward AYP.


DOE’s deal-making process lacks transparency and consistency, leading to the suspicion that the agreements are political, not educational. For example, the Arizona Republic reported in late August on a secret agreement with federal officials allowing Arizona to exclude the scores of limited English proficient students from AYP calculations.


Chicago Public Schools (CPS) chief Arne Duncan, a high-profile and vociferous critic of NCLB’s tutoring restrictions, finally won permission for the district to offer tutoring despite its failure to make AYP. Virginia obtained permission for a pilot program allowing four districts to offer tutoring before transfers, though the law specifies that transfers should be offered first. It remains to be seen if the deal-making will quiet the most vocal critics or simply inflame other state officials who may feel unfairly left out of the deals.


Calls for further AYP flexibility have intensified in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which displaced hundreds of thousands of students. After a month-long wait, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings responded by allowing "seriously affected" schools and districts to delay NCLB's AYP provisions and penalties for one year. Spellings said she also would consider waivers for systems hosting large numbers of displaced students.


States continue to offer conflicting and confusing reports on school quality. California parents have been informed that their schools are improving by state standards and deteriorating by federal standards, as has also been the case in Florida. Another confusing picture emerged in eleven states that succeeded in increasing the percentage of students scoring “proficient” while decreasing the percentage of schools making AYP.