The Washington Post ran a story this morning basically about how the No Child Left Behind accountability rules are soooo unfair. In fairness to the writer, Nick Anderson, it is difficult in even 1,000 or 1,200 words to unpack complicated policy arrangements such as the federal law’s “safe harbor” provisions or the fact that not all students take standardized tests and that many, for instance some special education and limited-English proficient students take alternative assessments. For a primer on how that all works click here (pdf). So my initial gripe with the story was that it really obscured the reality of the “100 percent” proficient rates that NCLB allegedly requires and I was disappointed that the story uncritically relayed some misleading statements. Charlie Barone was harsher in his judgment.
But now after day in meetings (and fighting snowbound traffic) I’ve had a chance to look at the performance data for the school Anderson built the story around. Here’s the math data. Anderson’s take is that it’s only special education students causing the school to not make “adequate yearly progress” because just 52 percent are proficient and that shows how unwieldy the law is. In fact, at this school, low-income students are lagging too (only half of them are proficient in math, fewer than in special education) but the law’s safe harbor rules meant that even that performance level was acceptable this year. In other words, they didn’t make adequate yearly progress either but a safety valve in the law meant that didn’t count against the school. Meanwhile, only 66 percent of the school’s 38 Hispanic students are proficient in math. This time, because of the loopholes Maryland exploits 66 percent is good enough as well even though Maryland is requiring a 77 percent pass rate this year. And I don’t want to be gratuitous but performance for limited-English proficient kids is going down…that didn’t make it in the story either. Punchline: All that adds up to a different take than Post readers got this morning. It is worth noting that reading scores at the school are better, but big gaps there, too.
First, again, things that are too good to be true, usually are and it’s usually a good idea to look at the actual data. Second, as the numbers above show this policy is quite complicated. But they also show that 100 percent is a strawman and there are a lot of ins and outs and the reality on the ground is different than all the 100 percent rhetoric you hear from people, who let’s be honest do know better. It’s not asking too much to ask that reporters get that stuff right though.
Finally, all this highlights a coming flash point in the No Child Left Behind reauthorization debate and what will likely be a gut-check moment for the Administration. Suburban schools do not like policies that call attention to the shortfalls like the ones I just mentioned. That’s why they’re happy when articles like today’s run because it makes everything sound so unreasonable. I don’t think asking schools to get more than 6 in 10 kids proficient is all that unreasonable. 8 in 10 either for that matter, which is what Maryland will ask of schools next year.
Fairfax County superintendent Jack Dale’s suggestion in the article that we have an “adequate yearly progress” exemption for schools where 90 percent of the students pass the state tests makes a lot of sense as an interim measure- so long as that’s disaggregated by race, income, and so forth and not just an overall number. But that wouldn’t help many Fairfax County schools that are not making AYP because of the low performance by kids of color or students besides special education students. And that’s a microcosm for the issue overall. We want to “win the future” but are we going to admit that right now in the present we have an achievement problem for low-income kids and kids of color and then confront it and improve? Or are we going to continue to shoot various messengers and jump through hoops to obscure the problem.
No Child was hardly perfect as a policy when passed in 2002. The ongoing stalemate on reauthorization is compounding some issues because the law wasn’t designed to run for 9 years. But the law, and the kids it’s designed to look out for, got a bum rap from The Washington Post today.