School success under "No Child Left Behind" hinges on the state in which it’s located as much as its students’ performance.

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It doesn’t work

The school evaluation system implemented within the NCLB act isn’t working and reveals an enormously uneven and misleading system of school accountability.

The Accountability Illusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Kingsbury Center at Northwest Evaluation Association released a groundbreaking new study, The Accountability Illusion. It peels back layers of the No Child Left Behind Act as implemented and reveals an enormously uneven and misleading system of school accountability. Analysts took 36 real schools (18 elementary, 18 middle) and “moved” them from state to state (28 states in all) to see how many would make “adequate yearly progress” under each state’s NCLB rules. The alarming results? In some states, nearly all of the elementary schools would make AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) while in others practically none of them would. These are the exact same schools. This tells us that the present system isn’t working. A school’s AYP status depends at least as much on what state it’s in as on the performance of its students.

The No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) aims to hold schools accountable for ensuring that all students in grades 3 through 8 are proficient in reading and math by 2014. But many details are left up to the states – in- cluding the complex set of rules used to measure whether schools make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) under the law. While it’s well known that these standards and rules differ greatly across states, until now it’s been difficult to judge the effect they have on results, particularly on the AYP labeling of individual schools.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s latest report, The Accountability Illusion, sheds light on this issue. It asks: “What if a real school was measured by the NCLB rules of, say, Texas, and then that same school was plopped down in Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey or Massachusetts and measured by their NCLB rules? Would the same school clear the AYP bar in some of these states and miss the mark in others?” The answer, in a nutshell, is yes. Analysts from the Kingsbury Center at Northwest Evaluation Association measured 36 real schools by the varying NCLB rules of some 28 states and found that a school’s label under NCLB depends as much on location as on performance.


“This study proves that the current AYP system under No Child Left Behind isn’t truly working,” said the study’s lead author John Cronin, from the Kingsbury Center at NWEA, a national non-profit education organization. “Re- sults vary wildly and a school deemed ‘fine’ by one state doesn’t pass muster in another state. The current system doesn’t help improve our schools.”

The size of the sample is limited. This is a weakness of the study which could be used for reducing its relevance. Nevertheless the research concept is robust and valid. The study illustrates once more the methodological and theoretical limitations of the NCLB act. In accordance with Fordham leaders, the solution to this dilemma is not to scrap NCLB or to federalize tests and standards. Instead, but to create incentives for states to voluntarily sign on to rigorous, comprehensive common standards and tests. Washington should then publish the results for every school in the land but allow states to decide what to do with schools that don’t meet those common expectations. This would ensure greater transparency and reinforce state responsibility. “Best of all,” they note, “it would end the gamesmanship that hseven years.” This means that it should be possible to increase school accountability in a federal decentralized education system respecting States’ autonomy in the field of education policy.


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