Learning Leadership column, July/August edition of eSchool News—The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), renamed under its last reiteration as No Child Left Behind, was due for reauthorization three years ago. NCLB, as it is popularly referred to, brought a new level of federal intrusion into local school district affairs. A surprising development, given that the law was spearheaded by a conservative Republican administration that, in previous years, had threatened to dissolve the U.S. Department of Education and take the federal government out of the business of education.
In the 10 years that NCLB has been in place, the law has been praised and cursed. It was originally praised for its intent to leave no child behind—to close the widening achievement gap that exists between the haves and have-nots. Whereas in the past, school systems reported their performance using the statistical mean, NCLB required districts to disaggregate their data and report the performance of categories of students by race, poverty level, language dominance, and special needs. This uncovered a very different performance profile. Districts that in the past prided themselves on the mean performance of all of their students found themselves apologizing for the poor performance of sub-categories previously hidden in the averages. That was a good thing.
Unfortunately, the makers of the law got carried away with their metrics as they further developed the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Under that rubric, school districts had to specify increasing levels of academic achievement that eventually would lead to all children meeting their state’s level of required performance by 2014. Furthermore, each year, each sub-category of students in each school would be required to meet the established performance benchmark or be labeled as having failed to achieve AYP. If one sub-category in one school failed to achieve AYP, the entire school would be deemed to have failed AYP. If a school in a district failed to achieve AYP, the entire district was deemed to have failed AYP.
Poor academic achievement was not the only means of failing to make AYP. Every sub-category has an established n, which is the minimum number of students in that category who must take the test for the school to be in compliance. If the school falls one student short of the n, the school does not make AYP. In the initial years of NCLB, many communities were bewildered by the surprising development that their beloved neighborhood school with the outstanding academic reputation had failed to make AYP and was now considered a “failing” school. Very often this happened not because of academic failure, but because of absenteeism on the day of the test.