Maybe we’ve been looking at this whole No Child Left Behind and accountability thing from the wrong angle? In Nevada, for instance, the high school graduation rate is 56 percent according to federal data. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress just 17 percent of low-income students are proficient or higher in reading by in reading by 8th-grade (and just 16 percent of Hispanic students, too). But let’s not lose sight of who really suffers in an educational environment like that. One former Nevada reporter writes in relation to the No Child law and the new waivers:
It was literally a painful experience to have to write, year after year, about how many local schools would be labeled as “failing” despite making every logical attempt at improvement. Under the original parameters of NCLB it doesn’t take much for a school to fall short. Failing to have 95 percent of eligible students present for testing will do it. Low performance by just one or two students in a particular subgroup can also lead to a failing grade.
Of course, a kid or two can’t actually make you miss AYP, it’s not how it works in practice even under the “original parameters” and certainly not now with all the flexibility states have built in with new student growth models and waivers. Meanwhile, the law doesn’t label schools “failing,” it labels them needing improvement. But those misunderstood policy details clearly have blinded us to the real victims here: Nevada’s life-crushing student outcomes are not the tragedy, it’s the reporters forced to write about it…
Coming soon…Is covering “adequate yearly progress” more emotionally stressful than covering Syria?
Update: Emily Richmond responds here. Two thoughts on her response: First, if schools were being “perceived” as failing when they were not it seems like a great opportunity for the media to help explain how the law actually works and why some schools that are good overall can still have issues with some groups of students that require improvement – especially in an education context like Nevada’s. Second, she argues that Nevada’s accountability system was poorly designed. Fair enough. But, this raises a question about No Child’s accountability rules that has not received as much attention as it should in the rush to jettison federal requirements: Was the law too loose on its accountability requirements allowing states to make some bad decisions (for instance designating subgroup sizes that were too small)? In the past several years states have adopted all manner of safeguards so this is less of an issue now but initially some states were arguably too granular. Should things be more prescriptive to head off bad decisions?
On the other hand, outside of the requirement that schools assess 95 percent of students – an obvious rule to prevent schools from skipping kids not likely to do well – when people say the accountability rules mean you can miss making AYP by a single student it isn’t quite right. The law – from the beginning – included “safe harbor” rules so that schools making progress but not hitting the targets could still make AYP. (This paper Erin Dillon and I did gets into all that and gives an idea of what the performance targets looked like a few years ago.) Now states do a variety of additional things to address this. So when someone makes this claim what they’re really saying is ‘the school missed by a few kids the target that was set for for schools that missed the original targets.‘ In other words, the second chance targets. Like the difference between “failing” and “needs improvement” it’s an important distinction and one the media should make clear when reporting on this.