Study examines how 41% of low-performing high schools made ‘adequate yearly progress’

Since passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many researchers have asked the question: How valid and reliable is adequate yearly progress (AYP) for indicating improvement in low-performing schools?

In a recent issue of American Educational Research Journal, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University tries to answer this question by studying a random sample of 202 schools in the bottom 12% of US high schools–the 2,000 vocational and regular high schools that are responsible for nearly half of the nation’s dropouts. The schools were located in 34 states.

The researchers made a surprising discovery: While 59% of the lowest performing schools did not make AYP for the 2004-2005 school year, 41% did make AYP in the same school year. The schools were identified as low-performing if they had low rates of promoting students (i.e. if they promoted 60% or fewer freshmen to senior status).

The researchers analyzed school characteristics, state and district report cards on the schools and their state assessment results for 8th grade math and English.

Why did some of these schools make AYP and the others did not? The researchers found it had less to do with whether schools were making genuine improvements than with state policies.

“Because states establish their own performance standards, design their own assessments, and establish the pace at which students must improve to reach 100% proficiency,” the authors write, “The difficulty of reaching NCLB proficiency goals in a given year varies considerably from state to state.”

Some states, the researchers note, only test students in the 11th and 12th grades and have minimal graduation rate levels or gain goals.

“In these states, high schools with low graduation rates and minimal or no improvement can make AYP by improving the achievement levels of only the students who make it to the 11th or 12th grade,” the researchers write.

One school in Missouri, the researchers write, made AYP with proficiency levels of only 21% in math and 25% in English and even though its graduation rate declined 12 percentage points to 77%. The school made AYP because of modest gains in proficiency levels of students in English and math and because the 77% graduation rate was above the minimum required.

Another practice that can make it easy for schools to make AYP are the state-established baselines from which high schools are supposed to progress until 100% of students demonstrate proficiency on state tests.

Some states have set initial baseline pass rates on tests at 20% or lower. In California, high schools started at a low baseline, according to the authors; only 11% of students had to score proficient in English and 10% in math for a school to make AYP in 2002-2005. Since then, the bar has gradually been raised. The difficulty of the exam in the state had one of the clearest associations with whether or not a school made AYP.

School characteristics

Do low-performing schools that make AYP have different characteristics than those that don’t? The researchers report that schools that made AYP appeared to have more resources, based on student-teacher ratio, tended to be smaller and to be rural schools, the researchers report.

Schools that did not make AYP had a student- teacher ration of 17.2-1 compared to 15.8-1 for schools that did make AYP. Schools that did not make AYP also had an average of 525 more students than schools that made AYP.

Schools that made AYP also tended to have fewer subgroups of students. On average, schools that made AYP had to do so for 25% fewer subgroups. “Low-performing high schools without racial/ethnic subgroups made AYP 61% of the time. Schools with at least one subgroup that had to meet AYP made it only 34%
of the time,” the researchers report.

With Congress now debating the reauthorization of NCLB, the researchers propose three changes to make the law more effective in ensuring improvements in
low-performing schools.

Proposal 1: Make changes in safe harbor provisions.

Proposal 2: Increase Title I funding support.

Proposal 3: Act to transform or replace lowest-performing high schools that are unlikely to improve.

Safe harbor provisions are intended to acknowledge significant improvement by schools that do not meet proficiency standards. But if a school is far below the standard and can reach safe harbor by reducing the percentage of nonproficient students by 10%, a perverse incentive is created, the authors explain. Schools focus on the nearly proficient students instead of on the most challenged students.

An alternative might be to base safe harbor around significant improvements in the percentage of students being promoted from one grade to the next and the percentage of students taking rigorous courses. That would focus low-performing schools on improving the education of every student in every grade and would also focus their attention on the major factors affecting graduation rates and achievement levels.

Title I funds do not seem to be reaching high-poverty high schools, the authors observe. In their study sample, only 47% of low-performing schools were receiving Title I funds. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of the schools had 40% or more of students receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. The authors propose that the government establish a separate stream of Title I funds for high-poverty high schools. Funds would be distributed based both on poverty and the educational difficulty faced by the high school.

The authors’ third proposal is to take radical measures to transform or replace approximately 15% of high schools that produce most of the nation’s dropouts. “Our data indicate that a significant number of low-performing schools will not be improved through accountability systems and the standards movement alone,” they report. “Our experience indicates that they lack the sufficient human, organizational, instructional, and financial resources to reform themselves, regardless of the amount of reform pressure put on them.”

In revising NCLB, lawmakers should provide the means and methods to replace these schools. States and districts could work together to provide struggling schools with technical assistance teams or it may be necessary to contract with third-party organizations with proven records in school reform.

For their study, the researchers used three data sources: the Common Core of Data (CCD), the U.S. Department of Education’s census of all schools, which provided student enrollment data and other school characteristics; state and district report cards for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 school years; and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) state assessment of eighth graders in math and English collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Are NCLB’s Measures, Incentives, and Improvement Strategies the Right Ones for the Nation’s Low-Performing High Schools?” by Robert Balfanz, Nettie Legters et al. American Educational Research Journal, September 2007, Volume 44, Number 3, pp. 559-593. 

Published in ERN October 2007 Volume 20 Number 7

Reader Comments

I enjoyed the article. However, my feeling is NCLB needs further clarification and studies. Each state has designed programs, which I feel, continuously shift blame between, schools, teachers and parents. In fact, the current status is truly ineffective for teaching the child!

Yes there should be a measure of accountability. However, the standardized testing does not give way to the ‘true’ measure of the child’s learning. As many teachers focus on teaching the items on the standardized test, instead of teaching.

NCLB has only further widened the gap of communication between teacher and parents on the path for the best interest of the child. I often am wondering how can we decrease the gap in our communication.

As an educator and parent, I balance work and home. I am there for my child. Yet I often see blame shifting occurring. If the teacher is concerned with achieving the necessary score on the standard test, just how effective is his or her teaching? Especially if an inadequate measurement can leave them jobless?

Until NCLB has been truly tried and tested in the schools of this nation, it is best to repeal the act. Allow the teachers to teach their classrooms with out the added pressure. Allow parents to focus on their child’s education without a national standard. But most of all, allow the children to learn as we did.

As I look around at the Bill Gates, Donald Trumps and Oprah Winfrey’s of this world, they learned under the same umbrella as many of us during the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s. They turned out well. We are creating a young generation which is overstressed and unlearned!
Berlene Mace

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