insights (2006-34)

Fewer Children Left Behind

The student proficiency targets mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law have been much maligned in many quarters on a variety of counts. The sheer imposition of federal standards on local schools is resented by some. The dumbing down of definitions of proficiency by many states that have leeway in setting them is another bone of contention. And many teachers, especially in schools that are hard pressed to meet the targets, have complained that NCLB has forced them into a teach-to-the-test instructional regimen.

Tennessee is one of the worst offenders when it comes to dumbing down its measure of proficiency as a stratagem for getting into compliance with federally set targets for the percentage of students expected to attain them each year on an upward path toward 100 percent attainment by 2014. Indeed, Tennessee has the widest disparity of any state in the country between the percentage of students it deems proficient and national norms established by the National Assessment of Educational Progress which produces what’s widely referred to as the nation’s “report card.”

By NAEP standards, 43 percent of Tennessee fourth graders were “below basic” in their reading skills in 2005 and 26 percent were below in math. By contrast, the much less stringent standard to which Tennessee resorted after NCLB was enacted in 2002 only show 12 percent deficient in reading and 9 percent in math for that same year.

On a statewide basis, this lower bar has enabled Tennessee to meet NCLB targets which, for the years 2005 through 2007, call for 83 percent proficiency in reading and 79 percent in math. The same holds true for Knox County Schools, whose system-wide scores approximate the state’s.

But the real thrust of NCLB adherence is directed at individual schools and, beyond that, at the performance of various subgroups of students within each school including blacks, Hispanics and economically disadvantaged students of all ethnicities. On this basis, as is to be expected, proficiency levels vary widely from close to 100 percent at suburban elementary schools such as Sequoyah and A.L. Lotts, to less than 70 percent at inner-city schools such as Green and Sarah Moore Greene. (These data are for 2005; data for 2006 will not become available until November.)

The redeeming value of NCLB is the spur it has provided to drive down non-proficiency in order to avoid sanctions at schools where it has exceeded the federal target levels. Viewed from this standpoint, most Knox County schools that fit this profile have been remarkably successfully in improving their performance. Consider the following examples:

• At Green Elementary, reading proficiency increased from 44 percent to 67 percent in just one year (between 2004 and 2005) while math proficiency rose from 35 percent to 59 percent.

• At Lonsdale Elementary, over that same span, reading proficiency rose from 56 percent to 78 percent and math proficiency from 63 percent to 75 percent.

• At Maynard Elementary, the reading increase was from 69 percent to 90 percent and the math from 65 percent to 89 percent.

• At Vine Middle, the gains were from 68 percent to 80 percent in reading and from 59 percent to 75 percent in math.

Several other center-city elementary schools, including Beaumont, Dogwood, Inskip and Sarah Moore Greene, came close to matching those gains. Also worth noting is the fact that proficiency levels of black students at a number of these schools surpassed those of white students.

It’s true that only Maynard among all these schools has actually met NCLB targets. But most of the others have earned good standing by achieving what’s known in the NCLB lexicon as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP for short. To make AYP a school with more than the allowable percentage of non-proficient students must reduce their numbers by 10 percent each year. The fact that of all the schools mentioned above only Beaumont and Dogwood appeared on a list of schools in need of improvement that the state Department of Education released last week means that all the others made the requisite gains again in 2006. Inclusion on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that Beaumont or Dogwood backslid, only that they failed to make sufficient further gains.

Granted, the state’s low standard of proficiency is a detraction. In simplified terms, that standard classifies as proficient anyone who scores higher than the 20th percentile mark on the state’s TCAP exams in 2002, the year in which this NCLB benchmark was set. But for deeply disadvantaged students that represents a measure of literacy that could make a big difference in their ability to get a job. And for schools with high concentrations of such students it represents a standard they can realistically aspire to as opposed to one that’s out of their realm.

Only at the high-school level has there been a conspicuous lack of progress in Knox County. At troubled Austin East and Fulton, the percentage of students scoring below proficient on the state’s Gateway math and science exams has actually gone up over the past two years while English scores have shown little improvement. Moreover, graduation rates at an additional five high schools (Carter, Central, Karns, South-Doyle and West) are below the state average of 78 percent, let alone the state goal of 90 percent that only Farragut and Powell meet. Unless the others show improvement, they will get stuck on the state’s list of schools subject to sanctions.