The Goal: Hold Schools Accountable
NCLB Mandates: Schools must make adequate yearly progress (AYP), which is a formula that determines whether test scores are moving up fast enough, year to year, so that by 2014 nearly all kids will pass. Each state sets its own formula, and some require scores to improve faster than others. School districts must report how many students pass the exams overall, as well as break down test scores by subgroup (whites, blacks, Hispanics, special-needs students, English-language learners, etc.); every group has to meet the same targets. So, say the state decides that 78 percent of students must pass for a school to make AYP this year. Taken separately, the school's white, black, Asian, Hispanic, low-income, and special-needs students must all perform to that level. If even one subgroup at a school misses the mark, by even one percentage point -- no AYP.
If a school fails to make AYP two years in a row, it's classified as "in improvement." That means the school must show that it's making changes and, in some cases, pay for extra tutoring and give parents the option to transfer their children to another school. Four years of no AYP subjects a school to "corrective action," in which it must make big shifts like choosing a new curriculum or lengthening the school day. After five years, you're up for "restructuring," which can include such drastic measures as temporarily closing down the school, replacing the entire staff, and starting over.
What's Not Working: As anyone who knows children would say, requiring every kid to meet the same target at the same time is just plain crazy. To hold teachers and schools accountable for not performing a miracle is crazier still. There are certain students, like those who are new to the school or who aren't yet fluent in English or have learning disabilities, who almost by definition will not be meeting the targets right away, says Petrilli. And yet, if just one of those groups doesn't make the cut, the entire school is deemed a failure. That alone has serious consequences. "When a school is labeled as failing, it tears down the self-esteem of students and teachers, and the community looks upon your school negatively," says Dee Jones, the family involvement coordinator at Washington Irving Elementary School in Hammond, IN. "The positive things that are happening in schools get overlooked."
Another disturbing issue with AYP is how it's gauged: Instead of tracking a class's improvement from year to year, the students are compared to the class before them. For example, this year's third-graders get compared as a whole to last year's third-graders, even though they're an entirely different set of kids. There's no looking at how any one child or group improves over time. So if a class arrives in September with low skills and gains a lot, but not quite enough to pass the test, their vast improvement doesn't count. The state sees only that they missed the target and failed to make AYP.