How a Lingering Deadline Pushes Schools to Face Their Shortcomings

National Journal

School officials are watching with trepidation as months peel off the calendar and the year 2014 comes closer, carrying a deadline that's haunted them for 12 years.

In 2001, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, legislation welcomed by many, but with a heavy burden: Students from Title I schools — public schools receiving federal funds — were expected to meet a nearly impossible proficiency level by the 2013-2014 school year.

With states unable to meet the ambitious law's demands and Congress deadlocked over how to extend the legislation, the Education Department under the Obama administration began issuing waivers to NCLB requirements in exchange for a promise: States would implement their own accountability systems dedicated to creating teacher accountability, closing achievement gaps, and improving educational equity for all students.

Since then, more than half of states opted out of NCLB requirements, and even more have applied for permission to receive waivers. The landmark legislation was effectively ineffective. The 2014 deadline no longer loomed over administrators' heads. But the sting still lingered.

While many states have created innovative systems to close gaps, a new Ed Trust report found that many more are still systematically failing some of the most overlooked groups of students and awarding high marks to schools masking the struggles of the students who need help most.

Below are some points the new report makes.

Ambitious Goals With Meaningless Consequences

Many states designed lofty goals aimed at closing gaps for low-income and minority students who frequently struggle in school, but very few made the goals part of the calculation for school scores, the report found.

Slippery language in what exactly is required in graduation-rate reporting and other accountability standards opened the door for loopholes and gaps in state reporting, leading to a wide variety of standards that were essentially rendered meaningless.

For example, while achievement goals were clear, the Education Department never specified whether states needed to include students overall or subgroups of students in their graduation rates.

Ed Trust uses New Mexico as its example, where schools must get all students on par with performance levels in the top 10 percent of schools within 10 years. But because of murky federal requirements, that goal, while ambitious, doesn't need to factor into the overall scores. So schools with struggling groups of Latino or low-income students could still receive an "A" rating. That's a scary thought, considering the state is 45 percent Hispanic and has the highest poverty rate, at 22 percent, in the nation.

"Simply having goals isn't enough," the report states. "They have to matter. This starts with incorporating performance against these goals into the rating or grading systems that send signals about how schools are doing."

Infinite Loop of Sub "˜Supergroups'

In addition, instead of using subgroups of students, many schools have opted to use "supergroups," which zero in on smaller groups of students that have historically struggled in an individual school. In theory, this alleviates the problem associated with the failure to disaggregate data, but in practice Ed Trust found the solution simply recreated the problem.

States can use performance, instead of racial demographics, to build their supergroups, such as students with disabilities or low-income students. But since these groups are often smaller, schools are unable to produce reliably significant figures. They resort to lumping supergroups together, mitigating the data from smaller groups.

"By putting groups together, it's important to ask whether we are recreating the problem subgroup accountability meant to address: averages masking very different performance among different groups," the report asks.

Most Schools Are Flying Under the Radar

States that received a waiver were required to identify "priority" and "focus" schools. "priority" schools were typically the lowest performing schools, while "focus" schools had large achievement gaps between students. And while federal guidelines exist for addressing "priority" schools, states with "focus" schools don't have as much luck.

The report found that while some states like Florida have strong plans to address effective teacher assignments to struggling schools, many others do not. Without defined roles and responsibilities for schools and their districts, "states are essentially telling schools that have struggled for years to fix themselves."

In addition, these identified schools, which have extra incentives and requirements to improve, represent an average of 15 percent of Title I schools in each state. This means that nearly 85 percent of schools in every state are flying under the radar, undoubtedly still carrying struggling groups of students.

"There's a very real risk that, in some states, students in large swaths of schools won't get the support and attention they need," the report states.