Time for the Annual Excuse Making: Montana Schools and No Child Left Behind

It’s September once again, and that means two things: students are trudging back to schools and Montana school superintendents are trying to explain why their schools failed the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) testing measures last spring. It also means that education reporters across the state are back at whatever it is they do, letting school district spokesmen say whatever they want, valid or not, in defense of their districts.

The most outrageous reporting and spin of the year has to go to Billings Superintendent Jacks Copps and Billings Gazette reporter Becky Shay. In the course of the very short article, the district’s failure to make AYP goals is blamed on forty students and a bad test, though both claims are unproven. Given the Billings School District’s unique AYP calculations in the past, perhaps math is problem, but not as Superintendent Copps claims.

For those of you unfamiliar with the measurement used in AYP calculations, each state establishes proficiency standards that are measured by testing. Schools can fail if not enough students take the test, if not enough demonstrate proficiency, or if members of certain sub-groups fail to demonstrate proficiency. These sub-groups include identifiers based on race, socio-economic background, and disability.

It’s that sub-group data that makes such an enormous difference between the results of small and large Montana schools. If a school has fewer than forty students in a sub-group, they are only counted as part of the whole. If, however, 40 or more students are members of a sub-group, the members of the sub-groups need to collectively meet proficiency in order for a school to pass.

In that sense, Superintendent Copps makes a valid observation when he claims that the sub-groups can impact passage or failure. The article becomes indefensible, however, when reporter Becky Shay makes this claim:

Under the No Child Left Behind law, those 40 failing students mean the entire district failed, even though some schools did pass, Copps said. Billings School District 2 has more than 15,000 students.

"A single subgroup of 40 students can cause and entire district to fail the test," Copps said. "That, for me, is unacceptable."

That’s not what happened in Billings at all. The results are surprising. At Billings Senior, 63% of the total population was proficient in math, with 63% of economically disadvantaged and 68 % of students with disabilities also scoring proficient.  Yes, that’s right. Students with disabilities scored a higher rate of proficiency than all students.

At Billings West, 67% of students were proficient in math, with only 43% of economically disadvantaged students and 16% of students with disabilities meeting proficiency.

At Billings Skyview, 68% of students were proficient in math, with 60% of economically disadvantaged students and 35% of those with disabilities meeting proficiency.

Forty students certainly did not cause the Billings School District to fail. If anything, the data reveals something that the law was designed to correct: mis-education of the poor and disadvantaged.  Superintendent Copps claims:

Research consistently shows that children who are at risk and those who have economically challenged families simply don’t perform as well in school as the majority of their counterparts.

"No one has been able to find the magic key to address that problem," Copps said.

It seems like Senior High School disproves that claim, doesn’t it? Instead of saying that we can’t educate poor children, I suggest we start trying a little bit harder.

Finally, the article closes with this note:

Because there is believed to be a correlation between reading and math, it’s difficult to understand why one subject would be passing and the other failing unless the problem is with the math test, Copps said.

Superintendent Copps is making things up to explain a broader failure across the state. Instead of making baseless claims about the validity of the test, without evidence or even analysis, perhaps Superintendent Copps ought to focus on improving instruction in math. Clearly, something different is happening at Senior than at West and Skyview, so rather than write off the test, Billings would be better served by looking at instructional techniques.

As I have said before, I am no fan of the punitive nature of the No Child Left Behind Act. It unfairly compares small and large schools and has almost no validity as a measurement between the students of different states. It does do one thing, though—it provides data that can inform educational choices and priorities. When school officials mislead the public about the results and blame groups of students, it seems to reveal a deeper problem than the exams.

My apologies for picking on the Billings schools. My local paper hasn’t seen fit to even report on our local results. Unfortunately, like most of the AA districts in the state, the two Helena high schools failed to meet AYP again.