ESEA: Ten Percent of U.S. Schools Labeled “Failing”

K-12 Testing

Nearly ten percent of the nation’s schools – 8652 of some 91,000 – already face the first level of sanctions under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). According to a July 1 press release from the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), the schools failed to make sufficient progress on state assessments. The 3.5 million students in those schools – all of which received ESEA Title I funds – are eligible to transfer to other schools.


The number of schools on the list varies greatly from state to state because each state has its own assessments and sets the difficulty levels on them. Michigan had the most schools labeled failing, 1513, or 40 percent of all its schools, while Arkansas and Wyoming had none. Yet, Michigan performs above average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while Arkansas is near the bottom.


In many states, schools in large cities with substantial portions of poor and minority students make up most of the state list. For example, 179 of Illinois’ 232 “failing” schools are in Chicago. Of the 179, all but one are predominantly minority; and at every one, 75% or more of the students receive free or reduced lunch.


Transfers and Sanctions
Districts must allow students from “failing” schools to attend other schools that are performing acceptably on the tests and must provide transportation. However, many districts report they have few or no spaces available in higher-scoring schools. Baltimore has 30,000 students eligible to transfer but only 194 openings; Camden, New Jersey, told parents they had no openings for transfers.


Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley denounced as “ridiculous” the notion that up to 125,000 students, more than a third of the city’s total, are eligible for transfers. The district claims it has room for fewer than 3,000 transfers, and it will actually allow transfers from only 50 schools.


In New York City, 385,000 students in 387 schools are eligible to switch schools. However, most “failing” schools are in districts where more than half the schools are on the list and where other buildings are already crowded.


When Boston reported it had few spaces for transfer students, the DoE replied that the city still had to comply with the law. Federal officials added that it was not clear whether ESEA overrode state class-size laws. DoE did direct districts to go to court to seek modifications in any desegregation or other court orders that limit class size.


Some state officials argued that results from spring 2002 tests will show improvement that will result in schools being removed from the list. However, in the next few years, many thousands more schools and many entire school districts are expected to face sanctions as the “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) provisions of the 2002 version of ESEA kick in (see Examiner, Spring 2002, Winter 2001-02).


Criticism and Compliance
Criticism of ESEA continues to grow. The chair of the Alaska Board of Education referred to the new requirements as “Kafka-esque.” Officials from many states have insisted that their current accountability programs are superior to what ESEA requires and criticized the rigidity of the law.


Nonetheless, all states have submitted applications for ESEA funding. Vermont, whose governor questioned whether the state should even apply (see Examiner, Spring 2002), did so reluctantly. Governor Howard Dean indicated that the state will reconsider whether to accept the funds next year after comparing the costs of complying with the law with the funding provided.


Errors also have spurred criticism. Ten days after Ohio announced it had 425 schools on the list, the state issued a correction saying there were only 203 failing schools and blamed a computer error. This infuriated many educators and parents in the schools erroneously labeled.


Many districts have complained about a lack of time to implement the confusing policies. Some states, such as Tennessee, will not report test scores until late summer, while sanctions must start in the fall, giving schools and districts no time to prepare. Parents also may not be notified of their options until just before school starts.


Mixed systems
Nebraska’s application was approved, though its Commissioner of Education has indicated the state will continue its accountability system that combines limited state exams with district-developed and classroom assessments (see Examiner, Spring 2002).


Other states are also pursuing the mixed assessment strategy. Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont have formed a consortium to develop such assessments, and may be joined by New Hampshire. New Jersey has scrapped its state-made tests and plans to implement a new system that will include fewer exams and more local, performance-based assessments. However, the state has no funds to pilot the new system and will seek private grants.


What’s the Standard?
Even before Congress approved the new ESEA, states had an incentive to lower their definition of “proficient” in order to reduce the number of schools facing sanctions. Now, all students must reach their state’s proficient level by 2014 and all schools and districts must make AYP toward this goal, as must specified groups within each school, including racial minorities and low income children (see Examiner, Winter 2001-02).


In June, Connecticut became the first state to alter its performance labels in response to ESEA. Previously, only the top group of scorers was deemed to have met the state’s goals; now students in the top two categories are “proficient,” a labeling that matches the federal requirement that proficient be the next to the top category. Under Connecticut’s previous policy, 75% of schools would soon be deemed “failing”; under the new policy, 80% of the students are already “proficient.”


Michigan also appears poised to redefine its progress requirements in response to the high ratio of schools on the “failing” list.
• For more information and updates about ESEA, visit the FairTest website.
• DoE press release with state list at