NCLB Neither Spurs Improvement Nor Prevents Failure

K-12 Testing

The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law's adequate yearly progress (AYP) mechanism provides little clear or useful information about school quality and appears to be neither encouraging school improvement nor preventing failure, according to a recent report from the Harvard Civil Rights Project (HCRP). Rather, it is heaping unhelpful sanctions on schools serving low-income and minority-group students.

Politically motivated regulatory changes are easing the way to AYP for many schools that would have failed under the law's original rules. On the other hand, increased proficiency standards and an increase in tested grades are having the opposite effect, making it more difficult for many schools to make AYP, according to authors Ann Owens and Gail L. Sunderman. Add in various states' unique modifications to their accountability plans, and the result is a picture of school quality that is too muddled to interpret.

Noting that NCLB is in its fifth year and up for reauthorization in 2007, the authors say now is a good time to evaluate its impact and think about how to improve it. As part of a larger study on NCLB, they chose to examine six states with large percentages of minority and low-income students (Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Virginia). Then they compared the characteristics of students in schools in improvement status to those of students in schools making AYP.

They found burgeoning lists of long-term "failing" schools, primarily those serving disadvantaged and minority students. But the increased labeling of schools is not producing improved learning. A comparison of state test and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results suggests that state test results are being inflated by narrowing curriculum, teaching to the test and other strategies, while NAEP does not show significant academic progress or a decrease in the achievement gap.

Not only is NCLB's AYP mechanism a poor tool for gauging school improvement, the authors said, but state assessments themselves fail to provide a complete picture of what students know and neglect higher order or complex thinking skills.

The reason sanctions are falling hardest on schools that are highly segregated and serve mostly low-income and minority students has to do with the way the law sets up the annual progress requirements. It fails to recognize even substantial improvement for schools with many students starting out way behind, even though they have to make significantly greater progress than students in initially higher-performing schools for their schools to avoid a failing label.

In fact, the authors found many schools "needing improvement" are actually making progress comparable to or greater than those "making AYP." For example, in New York for grade 4 math, the percentage of students in so-called improvement schools scoring at or above the proficiency level in math increased by 4.80 percentage points, compared to an increase of just 0.90 for students in AYP schools.

The situation may even be murkier. Researcher Jerry Bracey recently pointed out a related scoring issue. A school or district that had many students scoring just below the "proficient" level would look good by a modest score gain that pushed many of those students across the cutoff line. Another district may make greater gains in average test scores, but if its students were already above the cut off, it would have a smaller increase in proficiency.

So-called growth or value-added models have been proposed as a solution to this problem and are being piloted, with federal approval, in North Carolina and Tennessee. However, the HCRP authors cite evidence that these states' use of growth models did little to change a school's improvement status.

The authors recommend that policymakers modify NCLB to acknowledge that 100% proficiency is highly unlikely and to establish realistic performance targets. They also recommend policymakers consider using "carefully designed" multiple measures, which they said could "provide additional information to enhance the validity of test scores and can serve as a counter weight to incentives to push out students who score low on achievement tests."

Echoing the recommendations of the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, the authors concluded, "Instead of concentrating sanctions on schools serving at-risk students, the Administration should consider legislation more in line with the original goal of the Title I program: providing these schools with support, rather than sanctions, to ensure more equitable performance by all students."

The full report, "School Accountability under NCLB: Aid or Obstacle for Measuring Racial Equity?" is available at

Bracey's blog is at

The Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB