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Taking Root: Despite Ongoing Complaints, NCLB has Become Implanted in the Culture of America's Public Education System
Even before the re-election of President Bush made its future secure, the No Child Left Behind Act had begun sinking roots in states across the country.
On virtually every indicator tracked by the Education Week Research Center, based on a survey of state education departments, the number of states meeting the law’s requirements in the 2004-05 school year has inched up from last year, although far more remains to be done.
“We’ve made great progress in our schools, and there is more work to do,” said Mr. Bush on Nov. 17, in announcing his choice of Margaret Spellings for U.S. secretary of education during his second term.
“I think, overall, that I see schools, school districts, and states taking the law more seriously,” said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group that has been monitoring implementation of the law. “I think it’s really set in.”
The No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002 as the centerpiece of his education agenda, is the latest reauthorization of the nearly 40-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The revised law is designed to close achievement gaps and bring all students to the “proficient” level on state tests by 2013-14, in part by ensuring access to high-quality teachers, improved reading instruction, and other measures.
Nearly half the states—23 and the District of Columbia—are now testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as the law will require starting in 2005-06. That’s up from 20 states last year.
But not all those states are using tests aligned with their standards in every grade, as the law also demands. The District of Columbia is currently using off-the-shelf tests that have not been customized to reflect its academic-content standards. And Louisiana is using such tests in at least some grades.
Of the states not giving standards-based reading and math tests in each of the required grades, many are running to catch up and meet the requirement by next school year, with a number of them field-testing items this coming spring.
“Overall, state assessment directors are feeling very confident that the reading and math assessments across grades 3-8 and one grade level in high school will be in place,” said Mary Yakimowski, the director of assessments for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. “So they’re in good shape. It’s been a growing opportunity, but they’ve risen to the challenge.”
The law also compels states to give science tests aligned with their standards at least once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12, beginning in 2007-08. Twenty-three states already administer science tests in those grade spans, up from 21 states in 2003-04. But only 19 of those states are using tests aligned with their content standards in each of the grade spans, as required by the federal law.
The U.S. Department of Education still has not given final approval to every state’s testing system under the previous reauthorization of the ESEA, in 1994. To date, 41 states have had their testing systems fully approved under that version of the law, according to the department’s Web site. The department has not begun the peer-review process for approving state testing systems under the No Child Left Behind Act, although it was gearing up to do so in late November.
Some states also have scaled back on testing unrelated to the NCLB law to make room for its mandates. In Missouri, budget constraints forced the state to cancel state tests in science and social studies for the second year in a row in 2003-04. Districts there can pay for the tests on their own.
“Out of our 500-plus school districts, we have about 80 percent of them taking our voluntary assessments,” said Walt Brown, the director of assessment for the Missouri education department. State tests in health/physical education and in fine arts also have not been offered in the past two years.
In neighboring Illinois, meanwhile, the legislature passed a bill that bars the state from testing in anything but subjects mandated by the federal law. “We had been testing in social sciences and writing,” said Naomi Greene, a spokeswoman for the state board of education, “so those are being removed from the testing beginning in the spring of 2005.”
The state will continue testing in science in anticipation of the 2007-08 federal mandate.
California had been giving a norm-referenced test, in addition to its standards-based tests, in grades 2-11. But that test, which compares students’ performance against that of a nationally representative sample, will be given only in grades 3 and 7 starting this school year.
“People just saw it as too much testing, or more testing,” said Geno J. Flores, the deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability in the California education department. “Even our legislature wanted to reduce testing.”
Arizona hopes to halve the amount of time devoted to standardized testing by combining norm-referenced and standards-based items into the same exams, under a contract awarded last spring to CTB/McGraw-Hill.
Other states fear that, while they haven’t had to cut back on their testing programs yet, financial pressures may force them to do so. Over the past four years, Washington state has involved thousands of teachers in preparing questions for state tests and in scoring the exams, which are about half multiple-choice and half open-ended or constructed-response items.
“It’s our effort to demystify the items,” said Greg Hall, the state’s assistant superintendent for assessment and research, who also noted that it’s great professional development for teachers. “Then people are more comfortable that the tests are fair.”
But Mr. Hall estimated that without additional financial help from the federal government, the testing program will be $8 million to $10 million in the hole starting in the 2006-07 school year, with additional shortfalls in future years. And he worries that will affect the quality of the testing program.
The federal law authorizes about $400 million annually through 2007 to help states meet the costs of the testing mandates. A report by the congressional Government Accountability Office estimates the cost to states at $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion between now and then, depending on the types of tests used.
“While the federal government is putting some money into this, it’s nowhere covering the costs in many places of doing this amount of testing, so there’s significant price pressure,” said Jon Cohen, the vice president and director of assessment for the American Institutes for Research, a private, nonprofit research organization based in Washington.
Every state is now using test results to help determine whether schools have made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the law.
By mid-November, 46 states and the District of Columbia had released their latest AYP results. In at least 32 of those states, a higher proportion of schools met their annual achievement targets this year than last, thanks to some combination of improved test scores, greater flexibility from the federal government in calculating progress, and revisions to state accountability plans.
Forty-seven states asked the Department of Education to approve changes to their accountability plans under the NCLB law that, in many cases, make it easier for schools and districts to achieve adequate progress, according to an analysis by the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan Washington research and advocacy group that works on behalf of public education. ("Data Show Schools Making Progress on Federal Goals," Sept. 8, 2004.)
By mid-November, the department had posted letters to 42 states on its Web site, in which federal officials approved many, though not all, of the requested changes.
“We’re dealing substantially with a statistical game, and the statistics have changed a little bit,” said Michael A. Resnick, the associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. “I think there is a sense of some short-term relief that this was not going to be as problematic a year as some people thought it might have been.”
But Ms. Piché of the Citizens’ Commission for Civil Rights worries that, in some instances, the federal government may have been too lenient in approving changes to state plans.
“I think, in some cases, the state proposals have been reasonable. In other cases, maybe they’ve given away too much of the store,” she said. “I think a real analysis needs to be done about how the department has worked with states, whether they’ve been consistent, whether these revisions to state plans are going to ease unreasonable burdens on states, or whether they’re going to leave more kids behind.”
Moreover, while the federal law requires states to set up a “single, statewide accountability system,” what that means is not always clear. Twenty-five states use criteria, in addition to those spelled out in the federal law, to assign ratings, according to Education Week’s survey. And sometimes schools may get dual ratings that do not always add up.
Often, that’s because state accountability systems focus on the overall performance of a school’s students or give credit for growth, while the federal law requires schools to get a minimum percent of students in each subgroup—including those who are poor, speak limited English, have disabilities, or come from racial- and ethnic- minority backgrounds—to the “proficient” level on state tests each year.
In Florida, for example, some schools that got A’s under the state system did not make adequate progress under the federal law. In Texas, Mr. Bush’s home state, a school could be rated just fine one day, and then declared “academically unacceptable” the next, depending on which rating system was used.
Almost all states now publish detailed information on student performance on school report cards, as required by the federal law. But 16 states have separate NCLB or AYP report cards, in addition to their traditional ones. (See the accompanying story, "Report Cards Provide More, or Less, Data.".)
And while the federal law requires states to design rewards and penalties for all schools, based on their performance, most have chosen to apply the stiff sanctions spelled out in the law solely to schools that receive federal Title I money for disadvantaged students. (See the accompanying charts, "Incentives for Excellence.")
Under the law, Title I schools that do not make adequate progress for two or more years in a row are identified for “school improvement.” Such schools are supposed to receive technical assistance. If they do not improve, they are also subject to sanctions.
In the first year of improvement status, they must permit students to transfer to a higher-performing public school. In year two, students in such schools also are eligible for free tutoring, known as supplemental services. In the third year, the schools enter “corrective action,” which may involve such steps as replacing the curriculum, lengthening the school day or year, or decreasing the school’s management authority. Title I schools in year four of improvement must prepare for “restructuring,” which can range from reopening the school as a charter school to replacing its principal and teachers, turning it over to private management, or having it taken over by the state.
According to data gathered by Education Week, the number of schools identified for improvement in 2004-05 has nearly doubled from last year, to at least 11,008, though not all of them are Title I schools that face federal sanctions. States such as California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania now have significant numbers of Title I schools in corrective action or beyond.
In Michigan, for example, 162 schools are supposed to be restructuring, and 82 more are planning to do so. Based on an analysis by the Center on Education Policy, the most common option in Michigan is to replace the principal and staff. Just 15 percent of schools chose to adopt an external school reform model, 14 percent hired state-trained coaches, and 12 percent appointed governing boards to take over the school. No schools were closed and reopened as charters, which are public schools that operate with a high degree of autonomy. And the state decided not to take over any schools because it lacked the capacity to do so.
“States are going to face an increasing problem of what do they do with schools that just don’t cut it,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy.
“That attention is overdue,” he added, “but states are finding they don’t know what to do. Now that the crunch is coming, these state departments of education are not large organizations, in general, and they frequently don’t have the expertise on staff, and they certainly don’t have the money, to address an increasing number of schools that are in bad straits.”
What’s more, the number of schools that do not make adequate progress could jump significantly next year, when the performance targets rise substantially in most states for the first time since the law was enacted nearly three years ago.
In Arizona, for example, 22.5 percent of 8th graders must score at the proficient level or higher on state math tests in 2004-05, up from 7 percent last year. In reading, the figure jumps from 31 percent to 42.5 percent.
But probably the murkiest area remains identifying “highly qualified” teachers. (See the accompanying story, "'Qualified' Teachers: A Victory on Paper?")
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all teachers in core subjects meet the federal definition of highly qualified by the end of next school year, 2005-06. For new teachers beyond the elementary grades, that means having a college major in the subject they teach or passing a subject-matter test. The number of states mandating either or both requirements for prospective teachers has been inching up, with more states requiring subject-matter expertise of high school than middle school teachers.
But veteran teachers can also meet the requirement through a “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation” as defined by each state according to federal guidelines. Those alternative requirements, known by the acronym HOUSSE, vary widely from state to state, and many observers are worried that they represent a significant loophole in the federal law that needs to be tightened up.
Most states also lack reliable data on teacher quality. “The lack of good data systems is like a dagger in the heart of what we’re trying to get done,” said Barnett Berry, the president and chief executive officer of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.
In Alabama, he said, education department staff members are combing through some 40,000 transcripts to determine whether teachers meet the law’s requirements.
Only 14 states report on the number or percent of classes taught by highly qualified teachers, as required by the federal law, almost unchanged from 13 last year.
And while states are supposed to set measurable objectives for closing the gap in the percentages of highly qualified teachers in high-poverty vs. low-poverty schools, “thus far, the [Bush] administration has paid almost no attention to those provisions,” maintained Ms. Piché of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.
“The stronger incentives and sanctions are not around the ‘highly qualified teacher’ requirements,” said Bridget Curran, a senior policy analyst at the National Governors Association.
Similarly, there appear to be few incentives for states to take provisions for identifying “persistently dangeorus schools” seriously. (See the accompanying map, "Persistently Dangerous Schools.")
Meanwhile, proposals continue to mount for amending the law—whether by statute or regulatory fixes.
In October, a coalition of 30 national organizations called on Congress to make major changes in the law, including how academic progress is measured, substitution of sanctions that do not have a consistent record of success, and a funding increase.
But with President Bush’s re-election and the bigger Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate, most observers did not predict any major changes before the law comes up for reauthorization in 2007. Mr. Bush has said he’s determined to extend the “high standards and accountability measures” of the law to the nation’s public high schools during his second term.
“There is a general consensus on both sides of the aisle in Congress right now that the No Child Left Behind law itself is sound,” Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in an e-mail.
“While there have been pockets of members in Congress occasionally expressing desire for various changes to be made,” Mr. Schnittger noted, “there has rarely ever been a broad consensus around any one proposal—and even when there has been a reasonable case presented for tweaks, the Education Department has usually been able to address it through the regulatory process, without need for legislative action.”
“I think the election results mean no major changes to NCLB and very little new money,” said Mr. Jennings, a former top education aide to House Democrats. “I don’t see the president wanting to make major changes in the law.”
The wild cards, he said, are whether rank-and-file members of Congress who have heard complaints back home decide to pursue any changes, or whether state legislatures bring pressure to bear on Congress and the White House.
“Post-election, there has been and there are going to continue to be lots of conversations about No Child Left Behind,” said Ms. Piché. “I think the president and the administration are going to be very tough and resist any effort in Congress to amend the law until it’s time to be reauthorized. I think with the election, that’s more of a sure thing.
“But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t discussing this.”
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