Nearly a dozen years after President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law, its deepest imprint may be its labeling of 90 percent of California’s schools serving poor children as failures.
That is the depressing conclusion to be drawn from the latest scorecard of how California schools have done on the impossibly high bar set by the law on a range of accountability measures.
It is by now well known that the law, whose purpose was to close the achievement gap, has failed to do so. While there have been some improvements in some states, the achievement gap, on average, between white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Latino students, on the other, remains far too high — between 20 and 30 percentage points on state tests.
What seems clear is that not only have many children been left behind, but so have many schools.
The 2002 law, now in its twilight years, imposed a set of rewards and sanctions intended to nudge, prod and shove schools and districts to do better, even if it meant removing staff, closing schools, or having the state take over schools and districts.
Instead, NCLB has deteriorated into an elaborate accountability system whose end result is to label more and more schools as failures, without giving them the resources to improve.
The law did force schools to keep track of student performance based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds and other characteristics. But the latest results released by the California Department of Education underscore the ineffectiveness of the law in achieving its primary goal. Only 8 percent of elementary schools, 4 percent of middle schools and 24 percent of high schools covered by the law — schools receiving federal Title I funds intended for poor children — made the necessary “annual yearly progress” or AYP as prescribed by NCLB.
In a bizarre outcome, instead of having more schools succeed in response to the law’s numerous sanctions, many more have ended up being labeled as “in need of program improvement, which means that they (and numerous student subgroups) have failed to make “annual yearly progress” for two years in a row.
In 2002, 1,200 California schools were labeled as being “in need of program improvement,” or PI schools, in the vernacular of the law. By this year, the number has risen to 4,996 (out of 6,135 so-called Title I schools). What’s more, entire school districts – 566 of them – have also received the same “program improvement” label, the equivalent of a failing school under the law.
This spiral of failure occurred exactly
as the number of schools deemed to be succeeding under California’s own accountability law – those with an Academic Performance Index of more than 800 – increased steadily each year, from 21 percent of schools in 2001-02 to 51 percent of schools this year.
Further proof of the law’s ineffectiveness has been the near impossibility of schools shedding the “program improvement” label once it has been imposed. As the new figures from California show, of the nearly 5,000 schools in program improvement, only 28 were able to “exit” from “program improvement” last year, to use the confusing terminology of the law.
One reason for this has to do with one of the law’s most basic deficiencies: the unattainable requirement that 100 percent of children be “proficient” in reading and math by the end of the current school year, as measured by their performance on standardized state tests.
Each year, the bar has been raised, requiring ever-higher percentages of students to be “proficient” on state tests – and then only on two subjects (reading and math). Because California has relatively high standards compared to many other states, and, unlike some others, has refused to lower them, increasing numbers of schools have been unable to escape being labeled as underperforming.
What has made “improvement” under the law even more elusive is that students at a school could actually do better on state tests from one year to the next, and yet the school would still be chastised for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” because the improvement wouldn’t be sufficient to meet the ever-rising percentage of students that must score at a proficient level.
Requiring every one of numerous student subgroups to meet the prescribed proficiency levels each year has added to the challenge. Last year 89 percent of students in every subgroup had to perform at a proficient level — or the school would be be labeled as failing to improve. Come testing time this spring, the target will jump to 100 percent.
Another flaw in the law is that California, like most states, has not had the resources to intervene in schools that ran afoul of NCLB’s standards. Especially as a result of the state’s budget crisis over the last five years, intervention became a near impossibility as the number of “failing” schools soared to stratospheric levels.
And none of this touches on the fact that the law only measured how students — and schools — performed on two subjects, and then only narrowly measured how much they had learned based on mostly multiple-choice answers on tests, not the “deeper learning” that is required for students to leave schools ready for college or careers.
Just last week U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan condemned the NCLB law as “outmoded and broken. “Its inflexible accountability provisions have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score,” Duncan wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.
Duncan has granted waivers to 41 states – and eight districts in California – which relieves them of the most counterproductive requirements of the law, including those that result in schools being labeled as failures, demoralizing staff at a time when they are expected to enthusiastically implement another ambitous multi-state initiative, the Common Core state standards. However, Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education have balked at agreeing to the many new requirements demanded by the Obama administration in return for an NCLB waiver.
Thus, other than those schools in districts with waivers, California schools must still comply with a law that will likely soon result in 100 percent of schools serving low-income students being labeled as failures, as prescribed by a law that even the Obama administration derides as an anachronism.
Louis Freedberg is the executive director of EdSource.