Thoughts on Annual Yearly Progress and Failing Schools

If you live in any large community in Montana other than Helena, you’ve no doubt read in your local newspaper this week about the annual round of “failures” in Montana schools.

These stories, while mostly fair, do exactly what No Child Left Behind was intended to do: give the impression that public schools  are failing their students. Every year, parents and members of the community are told by the media that their children probably attend a “failing school.” By extension, almost as if it were planned, the privatizers move in with their calls for “school choice,” vouchers, and for-profit schools.

I’d guess most people don’t understand what the Annual Yearly Progress measure required by No Child Left Behind really means, but here is a brief primer of what it means to be a “passing” or “failing” school.

  • Results are measured in math, reading, and graduation rates.
  • A school can fail if its total population fails to meet the measurements.
  • A school also fails if any sub-group of students (those in poverty, those with special needs, those of distinct racial groups) fails to meet the benchmarks.
  • A district (high school or elementary fails if any school fails.
  • Every year, the benchmarks become more challenging to reach. This year, a passing grade meant that 94.8 of students needed to be proficient in Reading and 90% in Math, while 85% of students needed to graduate.
  • The sole measurement of Reading and Math scores is a single test that students know has no academic impact.
  • Even better, the tests are different in every state, so a student deemed “proficient” in Mississippi may have been reading a child’s text while a student in Massachusetts was reading Tolstoy. No, really.

There are 41 different ways a school or district can fail to meet the requirements for Annual Yearly Progress. Fail one measure, and you are a failed school.

The result? Every AA district in the state of Montana, despite comparisons that show our students as among the best in the nation, failed to meet AYP this year.

Superintendent Juneau struck the right tone in her response to the test data, saying:

No Child Left Behind is a broken system that has been overdue for reauthorization by Congress for six years.” She continued, “We need an accountability system that provides meaningful information to educators, parents, students and communities about the educational outcomes in Montana’s public schools.

No Child Left Behind was a disastrously-conceived policy, one that ignores the reality of public schools while punishing schools and their students for failing to meet impossible benchmarks.  While it has absolutely failed students, it has absolutely succeeded in enriching testing companies, emboldening corporations who want to plunder our schools, and diminishing public faith in our most democratic institution, our public schools.

At the same time, another truly pernicious impact of No Child Left Behind, though, might be that it’s made something that shouldn’t be political—increased student achievement—so politicized that we have hard time talking about it. Those on the right look at the test data and argue they are evidence for privatization schemes, and those on the left tend to ignore what the data do show: some of our students are struggling and too many are failing to graduate across the country, at a time when a high school diploma is increasingly a bare minimum for finding a career.

The data suggesting our students need to be better prepared for college and career is true. The analysis of graduation rates suggests we need to do more to intervene—as early as 2nd grade—to ensure that more students make it to their diplomas.

Schools can do better and must do better. It’s unfortunate that the climate created by No Child Left Behind and its annual reporting makes that more difficult, rather than supportive of schools that need help.

When we talk about “failing schools,” we should be talking about punitive federal policies like NCLB that are doing exactly that.