Built to Fail

The federal No Child Left Behind law is threatening to wreck public education in Minnesota and elsewhere. That's what it was designed to do.

Minnesota is a prime example of the carnage NCLB is likely to create. For decades, the state's education system has earned a sterling reputation by producing some of the nation's highest test scores and lowest drop-out rates. Yet in its evaluation of NCLB, the scrupulously thorough and nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor estimates that, even if Minnesota students showed a modest improvement in test scores and educational proficiency, 99 percent of the state's elementary schools would fail to make AYP 10 years from now, and 65 percent of the elementary schools receiving Title I funding would have to be "restructured." Under its most optimistic scenario for student improvement--which assumes, among other things, that the state's percentage of special education and immigrant students won't continue to grow, and that brand-new immigrants can boost their test scores just as rapidly as native-born Minnesotans--the auditor's office estimates an 82 percent failure rate on AYP for elementary schools in 2014, and the restructuring of 35 percent of the schools funded by Title I.

The closer one looks at the details of NCLB, the more ludicrous it appears. How do you create a chaotic situation in which nearly every school is destined to be labeled a failure? Let us count the ways.


Play Russian roulette with the test results

Under NCLB, students taking the assessment tests are broken down into eight different subgroups such as white, Hispanic, eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and special education. Each subgroup, as well as the school's student body as a whole, is measured according to its proficiency and participation rate on the tests. This enables teachers and administrators to better understand which students are most in need of extra assistance--and penalizes schools for not having already provided it.

Large schools that have at least 20 students in each subgroup (at least 40 for special education) can literally have their test results parsed out and measured in 37 different ways. If just one of the subgroups fails to meet just one of the standards (which include a two-thirds rate of proficiency and a 95 percent rate of participation by each subgroup on both math and reading assessments), then the school will be listed as having failed to meet AYP performance goals.

Well, there is one hint of leniency. Under NCLB's "Safe Harbor" provision, schools can be exempted from the failure list if the same subgroup can't attain the proficiency standard for two years in a row, but demonstrates progress by having 10 percent fewer students fail the test in the second year. But that removes just one potential pitfall from the dozens of possibilities through which schools can be penalized. For example, it's possible for a school to be put on the list because their "black" student subgroup wasn't proficient enough in math one year; take remedial steps to solve the problem only to be penalized again because only 94 percent of the "free and reduced lunch" students showed up for the test the next year; and then have their "limited English proficient" students demonstrate limited proficiency on the reading test the following year. Just like that, the school is facing third-year sanctions and is in danger of being restructured two years down the line.


Compare apples to oranges

If NCLB is serious about assessing the ability of schools to help students make adequate yearly progress, it's only logical to track the performance of the same individuals over a period of time. That's what the state had begun to do before NCLB came into existence, and what the state legislature has recommended for the NCLB assessments. But there are no provisions in the NCLB law to accommodate these "value-added" performance measurements. Instead, the performance of the students occupying a school on the test-taking day this year is assessed against the performance of the students occupying the school on the test-taking day last year. Brooklyn Center Superintendent Toni Johns recently stated that there is a 30 percent turnover in her district's student population every year. Not too long ago, there was at least one Minneapolis school that had a 100 percent mobility rate--more students moved in and out during the course of the year than the total population of the school on any given day. In schools buffeted by a high level of student transfers, the tests used to judge the caliber of their curriculum and, under NCLB, decide their fate, are statistically meaningless.


Make inadequate compensations for disadvantaged students

To state the obvious, students are assigned to special education and limited English proficiency subgroups because circumstances outside the classroom have created impediments to their progress. Nevertheless, NCLB initially planned to hold these students to the same testing standards as their counterparts in the white or Asian/Pacific Islander subgroup. After months of widespread criticism, the Bush administration modified its position. In December, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige announced that special education students defined by the state as having "the most significant cognitive disabilities," such as autism or a permanent brain injury, will be considered proficient if they pass an alternative test deemed more appropriate for their intellectual development. But Paige capped the scope of this exemption at 1 percent of a school district's student population, which in Minnesota translates to roughly 9 percent of its special education students. States can ask for further exemptions, but Paige warned that they would only be granted for "small increments above the 1 percent cap," and would be restricted to "a specified period of time."

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