Higher Bar Tripping Schools
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
More U.S. schools than ever are expected to be labeled as inadequate performers this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
More public schools are winding up on the trouble list not because their performance got worse, but because the bar has been raised in most states.
Public schools were required to increase the number of students passing state reading and math tests by as much as 10 percent to be labeled adequate in most states this year. Under the federal NCLB law, states must raise student performance every year until all students test proficient in reading and math by 2014.
Parents and teachers are being notified this month which schools in their state have been put on the "needs improvement" list. Already, nearly a dozen states -- Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Wyoming -- have reported an increase in the number of failing schools.
"As the No Child Left Behind time frame moves forward, states are going to have a harder time keeping pace with its expectations," said Scott Young, an analyst for Communities for Quality Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group organizing grassroots opposition to the federal education law.
In Louisiana, for example, the number of schools deemed "academically unacceptable" more than doubled from 78 in 2004 to 175 in 2005, despite overall gains in student achievement. The number of failing schools also more than doubled in New Mexico and Wyoming and tripled in Texas.
"Had the standards stayed the same we would have seen most schools move off the watch list," instead of twice as many move on, said Robin Jarvis of the Louisiana Department of Education.
States have complained since NCLB went into effect in 2002 that it is too costly and its goals are unrealistic. Several states have launched or are threatening legislative and legal action, including Colorado, Connecticut, Maine and the Republican stronghold of Utah.
Federal officials said it is premature to predict whether more schools will fall short of NCLB goals this year. Even if the number of schools identified as needing improvement increases, the latest national test data shows significant increases in student achievement, said Chad Colby, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education.
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores released in July showed that 9-year-olds are reading better, and the achievement gap in math and reading scores between races has narrowed significantly.
"What we know now is that states have increased their standards and student achievement has increased. If you have high standards for kids they just might live up to them," Colby told Stateline.org.
Last year, more than 6,000 schools -- about 13 percent of those receiving federal funding - were rated "in need of improvement." That number is expected to increase when all states have reported final school ratings this month.
The biggest problem for schools has been getting too few students with disabilities or limited English proficiency to pass state reading and math tests.
NCLB, signed by President Bush in 2002, seeks to raise academic achievement. Public schools are judged on how well they educate students who statistically fare poorly, including African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, low-income students, special education students and students who are learning English as a second language.
If a single group of students falls below state standards, the school as a whole is tagged as inadequate that year. Schools receiving federal funds to help disadvantaged students that fail to improve for two or more years face sanctions. Click here for more details on NCLB sanctions.
Six states -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee -- have announced that more schools are meeting the higher targets this year than last: But improvement in these states is in part to easing testing requirements, experts said.
For example, Georgia, North Dakota and South Dakota took advantage of new flexibility in how states test students with disabilities.
The new flexibility, announced in May by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, lets qualifying states give an alternative test to two percent of students with learning disabilities. Twenty-nine states so far have negotiated agreements with federal officials to apply the change to their 2005 school ratings.
Other states have asked federal officials permission to lower the bar they set for schools to meet proficiency goals. At least three states -- Florida, Missouri and Virginia -- have been granted permission to lower their 2005 benchmarks.
In Hawaii, state School Superintendent Pat Hamamoto announced August 8 that the state's assessment exam, which is considered to be among the toughest in the nation, would be overhauled to make it easier for students pass next year.
Hawaii's school ratings will not be released until August 18, but state officials said they expect a dramatic increase in the number schools failing reach state proficiency goals.
States face another major hurdle: the 2005-2006 school year is the first that all states must have in place NCLB's central requirement that all students be tested in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The number of schools failing to meet state goals is expected to rise as more students are tested.