Seventy Percent of Schools to “Fail”

K-12 Testing

A number of independent researchers agree that the great majority of schools in the United States will end up labeled “in need of improvement” (INOI) under the provisions of the new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB).


NCLB requires every state to establish a formula for determining “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward the goal of all students attaining the “proficient” level on state assessments of reading and math by 2014. The U.S. Department of Education (DoE) has begun approving state plans for determining AYP.


The federal law also requires groups of students who are low-income, racial-ethnic minority, limited English proficient, or have special needs to each make AYP. The Council of Chief State School Officers has calculated that a single school could face up to 18 score-gain targets. Failure of any one group to make AYP for two years in a row means a school or district that receives Title I funding enters a series of progressively stronger sanctions.



David Shreve of the National Conference of State Legislatures reflects the consensus of researchers when he estimates that 70 percent of all schools will be labeled INOI in the coming years. State projections vary based on how difficult the state test is, how fast a rate of improvement is expected, and how many students must be in a group in a school to be counted.


California is perhaps most extreme. Under current performance standards, 98 percent of all schools in the state and 100 percent of of schools serving mostly low-income students will fail to meet the AYP goal. Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni explained, “We would rather set the bar high and not have everyone reach it than set it low and have everyone reach it.” California’s AYP plan will require 7 percent per year gains, but last year the state’s actual test score gain was only about 1.5 percent.


Maine Deputy Superintendent Judy Lucarelli told her state’s Learning Results Steering Committee that “by the ninth year all Maine schools will be failing schools.” States expecting over 90 percent of their schools to “fail” include Massachusetts, with Louisiana projecting 85 percent.


Computer analyses suggest North Carolina will label 60-70 percent of its schools INOI. “North Carolina has made some of the best academic progress in the nation,” said state superintendent Michael Ward, “It is counterintuitive that in a state that has done this that 60 percent of the schools can’t meet the federal standard. But we attribute that to a federal formula that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”


Some studies have looked only at the next few years. Though Connecticut created a new performance category in order to reduce the number of schools declared INOI, this year’s tests are expected to cause 20 - 25 percent of the state’s schools to be labeled. Pennsylvania expects about 25 percent of its schools to be INOI next year, triple this year’s rate.


AYP formulas create a category of schools that score below the initial starting line. These schools are required to make additional gains in the first two years to catch up. Pennsylvania reports that most of the schools it expects to be INOI next year will be schools that are now below the starting line. These are often urban schools that serve mostly low-income children of color. In response to a similar problem, Oregon wants to allow each subgroup to have its own AYP. Groups starting below the threshold would not have to catch up in the first few years but would have to improve at a faster rate to reach the goal of 100 percent proficient in 12 years. The DoE has resisted this approach.


In addition, it appears the DoE will declare that any school in which any subgroup does not make AYP for two years is INOI - even if it is a different subgroup in year two than in year one. This will increase the number of schools designated as failing.


AYP Rates

The speed with which states put schools INOI depends in part on how they define the required Annual yearly Progress (AYP) rate. States have varied in their approaches to this requirement, but many states are choosing to require slower progress in the first few years. This means they will have to improve test scores more rapidly in the later years. Massachusetts’ and New York’s plans do this; both states’ AYP proposals have been accepted by the DoE.


A draft plan in Alaska would flatten the curve even more at the start and leave about half the required progress to be attained in the last few years. Ohio plans for more than half the required gains to occur in the final four years. Illinois is proposing a slow start, fast middle (gains of 7 percentage points per year), then somewhat slower the last three years. Texas expects growth of less than 3 percent per year at the start and near 10 percent annually later on.


Some critics suggest states that have postponed the required major gains are being politically opportunistic—the current sets of state and federal policymakers are unlikely to be in office eight years from now.


A slow start to AYP with fewer schools labeled INOI, particularly in the suburbs, would also present fewer problems for politicians seeking reelection in 2004.


Another means of reducing the number of schools labeled INOI is to lower the definition of “proficient.” Several states have done this, including Colorado, whose AYP plan was accepted despite a general statement from Education Secretary Rod Paige denouncing such practices. Michigan recently revised its state accountability program, reducing the percentage of labeled schools from 40 percent this past year to about 15 percent in the coming year. That percentage will then start to grow again.


Test difficulty

The tests themselves are pegged at varying levels of difficulty. An Ohio educator who is part of FairTest’s national Assessment Reform Network compared the Ohio and Texas tests and argued that Ohio’s grade 4 test is as difficult as the grade 8 test in Texas. (The Texas test is being replaced with a more difficult one this year.) Another ARN teacher, who moved from Colorado to North Carolina, said less than one-quarter of her new students would have passed the Colorado test, but every one passed the NC test.


Vermont has administered the quite difficult New Standards Reference Exam at grades 4, 8 and 10. To meet the federal requirements, it is considering using a much more basic test in grades 3-8, while still keeping the Reference Exam. Other states are exploring similar approaches, but it is not known how the federal government will respond.


Differences in test difficulty combined with varying definitions of “proficient” have created a situation in which more than three-fourth’s of Colorado’s students are already “proficient,” while only 13.5 percent of California’s are.


Tagging Good Schools

The erratic nature of school-level test score results continued to affect ratings across the nation. Some schools that have been honored as high-achieving one year are finding themselves in the “needs improvement” category the next. One was Southfield, Michigan’s Vandenberg Elementary, which President Bush had visited to promote ESEA. USA Today found that 19 U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon exemplary schools ended up on low-performing lists. Most schools in Massachusetts that have been labeled “exemplary” based on test scores experienced score declines the next year (see Examiner, Spring 2002).


If too few students are in a school or subgroup that must be measured for its progress, the results will be particularly volatile. Experts suggest minimum group sizes (e.g., number of tested special needs children in a school) must be between 67 and 100 to attain statistically sound results (see Examiner, Summer 2001). However, most states are picking numbers that are far smaller. Among the states whose AYP plans were initially approved by the DoE, Colorado, Indiana and Ohio will use 30 as a minimum group size (though Ohio will use 45 for special needs students); Massachusetts will use only 20, while New York will use 40, as will North Carolina. Pennsylvania wants to use 75, but the federal government may disallow that.


If subgroup sizes are too small, some schools will fall short of AYP due to measurement error, not because of any problem with the school. Washington now uses subgroups as small as 10 but proposes to increase the minimum size to 30. If that change is accepted, half the schools in the state will be INOI – but the number will be closer to 90 percent if it is not allowed to change.