Under ‘No Child’ Law, Even Solid Schools Falter
The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2008
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Prairie Elementary School had not missed a testing target since the federal No Child Left Behind law took effect in 2002. Until now. The school, perched on a tidy, oak-shaded campus in a working-class neighborhood here, has moved each of its student groups -- Hispanics, blacks, Asians, whites, American Indians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, English learners, the disabled -- toward higher proficiency in recent years. Over all, the number of its students passing tough statewide tests had increased by more than three percentage points annually, a solid record.
But this year, California schools were required to make what experts call a gigantic leap, increasing the students proficient in every group by 11 percentage points. For the first time, Prairie, and hundreds of other California schools, fell short, a failure that results in probation and, unless reversed, federal sanctions within a year. “And they’re asking for another 11 percent increase next year and the next, and that’s where I’m saying I just don’t know how,” Fawzia Keval, the school’s principal, said. “I’m spending sleepless nights.”
Across the nation, far more schools failed to meet the federal law’s testing targets than in any previous year, according to new state-by-state data. And in California and some other states, the problem traces in part to the fact that officials chose to require only minimal gains in the first years after the law passed and then very rapid annual gains later. One researcher likens it to the balloon payments that can sink homebuyers.
Part of the reason for the troubles was that the states gambled the law would have been softened when it came up for reauthorization in 2007, but efforts to change it stalled. This year Congress made no organized attempt to reconsider the law. With the nation facing urgent challenges, including two wars and economic turmoil, it could be a year or more before the new president can work with Congress to rewrite the law.
The law requires every American school to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. When it was first implemented six years ago, it required states to outline the statistical path they would follow on their way to 100 percent proficiency, and about half set low rates of achievement growth for the first few years and steeper rates thereafter.
Here in California, which in 2002 had only 13.6 percent of students proficient in reading, officials promised to raise that percentage on average by 2.2 points annually from 2002 to 2007, but starting this year greatly accelerate the progress, raising the percentage of proficient students by 11 points per year through 2014. Now that the time has come for that accelerated improvement, California schools are not keeping up. This year, about half the state’s 9,800 schools fell short.
“We’re hitting a balloon payment scenario, to use a housing analogy, where the expectations set forth in the federal law are far higher than recent performance levels,” said Richard Cardullo, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who led an analysis of the performance of state elementary schools. His study, published Sept. 26 in the journal Science, found that the proportion of students scoring at or above proficiency increased, on average, less than four percentage points annually from 2003 to 2007, far short of the 11 percentage points of annual growth required starting this year.
“Lots of schools are no longer going to be able to meet the law’s requirements,” Dr. Cardullo said. His study predicted that virtually every elementary school in California would fall short of the federal law’s expectations before 2014. Why did California decide on six years of relatively slow achievement growth, followed by six years of extraordinary gains? Officials from many states told the Bush administration in 2002 that they needed time to write new tests and accustom teachers to them.
But the California state school superintendent, Jack O’Connell, said he also bet that Congress might change the law in 2007, perhaps by removing its 100 percent proficiency goal. “It’s true that was in the back of my mind when we negotiated our plan with the feds,” Mr. O’Connell said. “And I’d do the same thing again. I’m still hoping a new administration will change the law.” Meanwhile, the law has had other unintended consequences -- including its tendency to punish states, like California, that have high academic standards and rigorous tests, which have contributed to an increasing pileup of failed schools.
A state-by-state analysis by The New York Times found that in the 40 states reporting on their compliance so far this year, on average, 4 in 10 schools fell short of the law’s testing targets, up from about 3 in 10 last year. Few schools missed targets in states with easy exams, like Wisconsin and Mississippi, but states with tough tests had a harder time. In Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico, which have stringent exams, 60 to 70 percent of schools missed testing goals. And in South Carolina, which has what may be the nation’s most rigorous tests, 83 percent of schools missed targets.
“The law is diagnosing schools that just have the sniffles with having pneumonia,” said Jim Rex, the South Carolina schools superintendent. Under the law, all public schools must test students every year and if those in any group fall short, the school misses its targets and is put on probation. All states adopt their own curriculums and testing standards, and the rigor of the tests varies greatly.
Schools that miss targets for two consecutive years are labeled “needing improvement” and face escalating sanctions that can include staff changes or closings. Partly because the law is identifying thousands of schools, however, few states have tried to radically restructure more than a few. Margaret Spellings, the federal education secretary, acknowledged in an interview that the law’s mechanism for holding schools accountable needed refinement because it works as a pass-fail system in which schools with only minor problems are in the same category as chaotic institutions with students running the halls.
“We passed the best law we could seven years ago,” Ms. Spellings said. “There’s wide recognition that this is something we need to address.” Under a pilot program known as differentiated accountability, Ms. Spellings has given six states -- Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio -- permission to treat schools labeled for improvement that have missed targets for only one group differently than those needing sweeping intervention. But the rate at which schools have been identified as needing improvement has not yet become worrisome, she said. “Pretty much every organization needs improvement,” she said.
Ms. Spellings has fiercely defended the law’s requirement that all students achieve proficiency by 2014.
Among that provision’s most tenacious critics has been Robert Linn, a University of Colorado professor emeritus who is one of the nation’s foremost testing experts. He argued, almost from the law’s passage, that no society anywhere has brought 100 percent of students to proficiency, and that the annual gains required to meet the goal of universal proficiency were unrealistically rapid, since even great school systems rarely sustain annual increases in the proportion of students demonstrating proficiency topping three to four percentage points.
“If, no matter how hard teachers work, the school is labeled as a failure, that’s just demoralizing,” Dr. Linn said. Ms. Keval, the principal at Prairie Elementary, has been fighting demoralization herself since learning of this year’s test results, she said. Educated in British schools in Kenya, she speaks Urdu, Swahili and five other languages, and several teachers said she was an inspirational leader. Ms. Keval described her staff as qualified, hard-working and dedicated to student progress.
Eight out of 10 children at the school are poor -- the children of gardeners and maids, retail clerks and short-order cooks, the unemployed -- yet all groups have made progress. When the law took effect in 2002, 22 percent of all students and 19 percent of blacks were proficient in reading. Ms. Keval has for several years used federal money to hire extra reading teachers and to organize additional instructional time for low-scoring students after school and during vacation periods.
As a result, reading proficiency has increased on average by nearly four percentage points each recent year, although black students have improved more slowly. On California’s state tests this year, 42 percent of Prairie’s students schoolwide and 40 percent of Hispanics demonstrated reading proficiency. But only 29 percent of blacks demonstrated proficiency, and since California schools were required to raise the proportion of proficient students in every group from 24 percent to 35 percent this year, that was not good enough. The school has been put on probation.
“I know we’ll continue to make gains with our students, but whether we can meet the next No Child target remains to be seen,” she said. “In one year, its hard to make an 11 percent impact.” Dr. Linn said Ms. Keval had good reason to worry. “An 11 percent increase from one year to the next, that is pretty gigantic,” Dr. Linn said, “compared to how most schools improve from one year to the next.” [ http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/education/13child.html ]