High-flying schools starting to feel the pressure of NCLB, to what avail?

With No Child Left Behind’s 2014 deadline for all students to reach proficiency looming on the horizon, and federal action to revamp the act seems unlikely anytime soon, state accountability systems, including Ohio’s, are ratcheting up expectations for public schools. NCLB requires states to raise the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, the percent of students who must be proficient in math and reading at each grade level) bar annually until 2014, when 100 percent of students are expected to be proficient in math and reading according to the state’s tests. As a result, it is increasingly more difficult for schools to attain AYP, and more and more otherwise high-performing schools are missing AYP goals and facing state sanctions.

After missing AYP for two consecutive years, a school is placed in “School Improvement Status.” Some chronically low-performing Ohio schools have languished in this needs-improvement zone for a decade now. But the face of schools requiring such rehab is changing.

Of the state’s public schools in School Improvement Status Year One (meaning those that have missed AYP for two consecutive school years), 66 percent are rated Effective, Excellent, or Excellent w/ Distinction by the state – the state’s highest rating categories. Twelve percent had a Performance Index Score of 100 or better, which is the state’s overarching achievement goal for all schools. Further, ten of these schools met both the Performance Index goal and met or exceeded the state’s value-added expectations, meaning their students are high-achieving and making annual academic progress, no small feat.

Nonetheless, these schools have been tagged as needing improvement. Under NCLB, they must send letters to parents notifying them of the school’s status (and offering the student an opportunity to enroll in a non-school-improvement-status building). And pursuant to Ohio's accountability system, they must develop improvement plans and dedicate significant time and resources to additional professional development and other initiatives called for in the Ohio Improvement Process.

So why are so many otherwise well-performing schools failing to make AYP? For one, there is a serious disconnect between Ohio’s rating system for schools and its accountability system. Take, for example, the varying goals schools are asked to meet.

The state aims for schools to get 75 percent of tested students to proficiency on each of the state’s tests, and that goal doesn’t change or increase with time. In contrast, by last school year Ohio’s AYP bar had risen as high as 80.6 percent proficient in sixth-grade reading and will continue to climb toward 100 percent across grades and subjects. The AYP goals for reading this school year have surpassed 75 percent and by next school year the AYP math goals will all top 75 percent, too. This means that come next year’s round of local school report cards, for the first time ever, a school will be able to meet every academic achievement indicator set for it by the state but still miss the AYP mark and face related state-imposed sanctions.

Significant state and local personnel and resources are tied up in these school-improvement efforts because of Ohio’s accountability, many of which have little to no track record of success. It’s a laudable, if lofty and perhaps impossible, goal to get all students to 100 percent proficiency. But in tough, and worsening, economic times, is it the smartest use of precious state and local resources to have inarguably good schools jumping through myriad regulatory hoops under the cloudy guise of accountability?

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