As my previous post described, things are looking up at Leopold Elementary School. Leopold, the largest elementary school in Madison, has strong leadership and a talented and hard-working staff. Their efforts are paying positive dividends for the school’s 700+ young students.
There’s a millstone around Leopold’s neck, however, and it’s called No Child Left Behind. According to that much-maligned federal law, Leopold is a “School Identified for Improvement” (SIFI).
What gives? If so many signs point toward Leopold succeeding, why do the feds consider that it is falling short?
The short answer is that the idiosyncrasies of the federal law combine with Madison’s serious achievement gap problem in a way that is particularly unfortunate for Leopold. For a longer answer, read on.
What’s the Deal with No Child Left Behind?
The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, signed by President Bush in January, 2002, is built on the fantasy that all students in the United States will be proficient in grade-level math and reading by 2014.
The law obligates states to test students annually in reading and math. Test results must be publicly reported for all students in the aggregate as well as for specific subgroups of low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and major racial and ethnic groups.
Each year, all students and subgroups are expected to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward the 2014 goal of across-the-board proficiency. The legislation authorized each state to define the annual steps that would constitute annual yearly progress for their students.
Some states followed the logical path of defining equal annual increases that would take them from whatever proficiency level they were at to 100% proficiency by 2014. Other states, including Wisconsin, decided to game the system a bit. They established relatively small required increases in the early years of the legislation and much larger required increases closer to 2014. Here’s how the required proficiency levels increase in Wisconsin:
(Source: New American Foundation)
Wisconsin school districts are currently living with the consequences of the sharply increasing required levels of proficiency for this and the next couple of years.
How Did Leopold End Up a SIFI School?
For NCLB purposes, Leopold, like all Wisconsin schools, was assessed on 22 different measures of 2010-2011 student performance. Seven pertain to test participation and don’t seem all that meaningful, but Leopold passed them all. The school also met the objective for attendance.
In math, Leopold met the standard for all students, as well as all six of the subgroups measured. (For some groups, the school’s performance feel below the standard, but not so far below that it fell outside of the margin of error, and so this is not considered a failure.)
In reading, the school met the objective for all students, and for five of the six subgroups (again, sometimes with the benefit of the margin of error). It was only the performance of African-American students in reading that failed to meet the NCLB standard. But this was enough to keep the school from making Adequate Yearly Progress for purposes of NCLB.
Why Did the NCLB Hammer Fall on Leopold?
There is no sugar-coating the fact that we have a serious achievement gap problem in Madison. We are not seeing the level of performance from our African-American students that we should expect. The District has a number of initiatives underway that are intended to improve the situation in a variety of ways.
But, for comparison purposes, it is worth noting that African-American students at Leopold did slightly better in reading than African-American students in the District as a whole. Also, the district has collected three years of “value-added” data that measure individual students’ gains on the WKCE from year to year. According to these figures, African-American students at Leopold show a greater year-to-year increase in their WKCE scores in both reading and math than African-American students in the District as a whole.
So while the achievement gap is a very serious District issue, it is not a Leopold-specific problem. Why then is Leopold singled out for NCLB ignominy on the basis of the reading scores of its African-American students?
One reason has to do with Leopold’s size. Schools are expected to achieve a defined proficiency threshold for purposes of NCLB. They will be considered to have fallen short if their score is below the threshold by more than the margin of error calculated for the group of students whose performance is being measured. The smaller the group of students, the larger the margin of error, and vice-versa.
Leopold is our biggest elementary school, and so the performances of its student groups are assigned the smallest margins of error for NCLB purposes. As a consequence, Leopold had a higher proficiency level for its African-American students than some of our other, smaller schools, but, unlike Leopold, those schools escaped falling short of the NCLB threshold because their margin of error was larger.
It is also the case that Leopold is paying a cost today for its falling short of the NCLB threshold in prior years. The level of sanctions to which a school is subject increases for each year it remains on the SIFI list. Leopold is now at Level Two for NCLB sanctions, and will be looking at enhanced sanctions if it is unable to work itself off the list this year.
Is There Any Way Out?
Unfortunately, as far as NCLB is concerned it hardly matters what Leopold does this year to address the reading skills of its African-American students. Once a school has been identified for improvement under NCLB, there is virtually no way to get off the list at this point.
Last year, the proficiency target in reading for all students and subgroups was 80.5% while the proficiency level for Leopold’s African-American students in reading was 71%. This number is calculated by adding together (a) the percentage of students who tested in the proficient and advanced range and (b) half the percentage of students who test in the basic range. No credit is given for students who test in the minimal range, which is the lowest of the four.
For reading, the cut-off this year increases to 87%. It goes to 93.5% in 2012-2013 and then tops off at 100% in 2013-2014. So the students and staff at Leopold could do an amazing job this year and take their African-American students from where they were last year in reading fully half the way to total proficiency and it still wouldn’t be enough to meet this year’s sharply-increased AYP proficiency standard.
What Does NCLB Have in Store for Leopold?
If Leopold is deemed to fall short again this year, the next level of sanction under NCLB will kick in. This level calls for “corrective action” at the school, which must include at least one of the following: “replace relevant school staff, institute new curricular program, decrease school-level management, appoint an outside expert to advise the school on its progress, extend the school year or school day, or restructure the internal organization of the school.”
Already, NCLB requires the district to allow Leopold students to transfer to other elementary schools – Stephens and Olson – and provide transportation to those schools for the transferring students.
One of the oddities of NCLB is that the law’s “remedies” are provided for all students at the school, even if the NCLB sanctions are triggered by the low scores of only one subgroup of students. For example, the proficiency levels for white students at Leopold last year were 94% in reading and 91% in math, comfortably above the NCLB minimums. And yet NCLB treats Leopold as if it is failing its white students, by authorizing them as well as all other students at the school to attend Stephens or Olson instead.
Can’t Anyone Fix This Mess?
If no changes are made to NCLB, then every school in the country will be considered to be failing when the 100% proficiency requirement is reached in 2014. It’s unfortunate but no surprise that Congress has been unable to agree on corrective measures to avoid this legislative train wreck.
Stepping into the breach, the federal Department of Education announced this summer that it would absolve states from NCLB sanctions if they adopt specified reforms. According to a DOE press release , states can seek waivers from NCLB sanctions if they submit “locally-designed plans to implement college and career ready standards; develop rigorous accountability systems that include a focus on low-performing schools and schools with persistent achievement gaps; and create better systems for developing, supporting and evaluating principals and teachers.”
In September, State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers issued a press release expressing appreciation for the administration’s initiative and suggesting that Wisconsin would seek a waiver. It is not among the eleven states that met the first deadline for doing so, however.
Where Does This Leave Leopold?
Leopold will have to work hard to continue on its upward learning arc, paying particular attention to improving the reading proficiency of its African-American students. But at this point in NCLB’s history, significant improvements in student learning – even objectively amazing improvements – won’t be enough for Leopold to avoid further federal sanctions. From a Leopold-centric perspective, we’ll have to hope that Wisconsin is willing to pay whatever ransom Arne Duncan exacts to free the state’s schools from NCLB’s increasingly unrealistic demands.