More than two and a half years since President Bush signed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), only a handful of states–Connecticut, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania–are on track to fully implementing the law, according to a report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

Though most states have raised the bar in terms of student achievement, the Denver-based nonprofit says few are keeping pace in terms of improving teacher quality, among other demands.

Billed as the most comprehensive measure of where states stand in meeting the requirements of NCLB, “ECS Report to the Nation: State Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act” derives its findings from ECS’s one-of-a-kind national database, built with a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

The study was released just as the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the 2005 education budget. Critics of the legislation, including proponents of educational technology, lambasted the bill for failing to provide states with enough money to implement the law’s many requirements (see “House bill would slash ed-tech funding”).

The report compares state progress from March 2003 through March 2004. It focuses on states’ progress related to seven major categories of the law: standards and assessment, adequate yearly progress (AYP), school improvement, supplemental services, safe schools, report cards, and teacher quality.

“There has been and continues to be a great deal of discussion around NCLB on many levels,” said Ted Sanders, president of ECS. “But this is the first chance the nation has had to view the issues in terms of what states are actually doing.”

Despite the fact that just five states are on task to meet every major aspect of the law, Kathy Christie, vice president of the ECS clearinghouse, said a majority of states have demonstrated remarkable progress since the bill was inked in 2001.

“States are taking NCLB very seriously, and we think the way they have evolved is very encouraging,” Christie said.

The landmark legislation requires every state and the District of Columbia to collect and report data on individual student performance, including mandatory testing in reading and math for all students in grades 3-8.

Schools that fail to demonstrate AYP for two consecutive years are labeled “in need of improvement” and must give students the option of transferring to a better-performing school. Schools that fail to meet AYP standards for three years in a row must offer tutoring services to students whose parents request them, and the sanctions get progressively worse as schools on the “needs improvement” list continue to fall short of the law’s goals.

Education leaders, for the most part, have praised the law for its good intentions but have protested its ballooning costs. In many cases, critics say, the law has pushed state and local coffers to the brink.

According to the report, all 50 states had met or were partially on track toward meeting half of the 40 key requirements of NCLB, an 11-percent increase over March 2003. What’s more, all but two states and the District of Columbia had met or were partially on track to meet at least 75 percent of the requirements–an impressive 109-percent increase over the progress achieved one year ago, the report said.

When it comes to technology, states have adopted several innovative approaches to collecting and using student data as required under the law.

Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Ohio all have enacted policies that encourage schools to integrate assessment systems designed to collect data and “generate reports” to help meet the demands of the law, according to the report.

In Utah, new legislation allows districts to have tests administered and scored electronically “to accelerate the review of test scores and their usefulness to parents and educators,” the report said.

In Virginia, a law was enacted requiring the state education department to create a web site enabling educators to suggest improvement to the state’s Standards of Learning.

In fact, according to the survey, all 50 states are at least partially on their way to constructing a plan for disaggregating student data. And 46 states either have or are in the process of developing statewide accountability plans to measure how close students are to reaching prescribed benchmarks.

Though the law doesn’t require states to integrate large-scale student information systems to sort and collect student data, Christie said nearly all states have invested in some type of technology to help monitor their progress. Without a good data infrastructure, she said, keeping track of all the provisions would be difficult.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was encouraged by the strides schools have made. “The commission’s analysis shows that states have indeed made considerable progress implementing No Child Left Behind, particularly in the areas of standards, assessments, and accountability,” Paige said in a statement.

But the outlook is less rosy when it comes to other aspects of the law, especially in terms of teacher quality.

According to the survey, few states are on track to implementing high-quality professional development for all teachers. Further, only 10 states are in a position to ensure that both new and veteran teachers are qualified to teach in their dedicated subject areas, and fewer than half are on track to making sure that scientifically based technical assistance is provided to low-performing schools.

It’s also notable that, despite widespread willingness to beef up statewide data infrastructures, just 19 states are thus far fully capable of providing report cards as defined by the provisions of NCLB–although 31 states are at least partially on track.

ECS’s Christie attributed some of the sluggishness to the timing of the report. When NCLB first was unveiled, she said, states primarily were focused on making sure the student assessment and data management pieces were in place. Now that the majority of those elements are intact, she added, states are beginning to turn their attention to other aspects of the law.

Kentucky, for instance, employed its Education Professional Standards Board to develop an innovative web tool that invited teachers to take a step-by-step assessment to determine whether they meet the state’s definition of “highly qualified,” according to the report.

Other states, such as Iowa and Kansas, have linked their respective university programs to their K-12 academic standards to ensure that all new teachers enter the classroom with their qualifications already in order.

ECS makes a few recommendations that states and the federal government might want to consider in an effort to speed up NCLB compliance.

Educators and other stakeholders first must embrace NCLB as a civil-rights issue, the report said. The goal, according to Christie, is to ensure equity across all student groups, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or disability. Under the law, all students are required to perform at or above grade level by the 2013-14 school year, which means that every student must be held to the same high standards–no matter what.

The same goes for performance growth, she said. Too often, educators become focused solely on improving the status of low-performing students. Though the law requires that traditional underachievers begin to show noticeable gains, it doesn’t make excuses for average and above-average learners. All students must continue to excel to avoid being left behind, Christie said.

ECS also has asked the federal government to consider reassessing its definition of AYP. As it stands, Christie said, the current definition is too vague and does not account for the fact that states use different benchmarks to gauge success. Rather, ECS would prefer that ED use some sort of statistical model to define AYP. This would help standardize the definition and ensure that schools aren’t unfairly lumped into the “needs improvement” category, she said.

What’s more, the report suggests that states look for ways to strengthen their requirements for highly qualified teachers. Though most states have requirements in place to ensure that all new hires are highly qualified, Christie said, questions remain about the types of evaluations used to give veteran teachers that distinction.

“We need to make sure there are no trap doors for [veteran teachers] to fall through,” she said, adding that the majority of states are not as vigilant as they should be in terms of monitoring professional development.

Finally, school systems need to continue to build state and local capacity to handle the many demands of NCLB, the report said. Amid thinning staffs and constricting budgets, schools must look for the most efficient means of handling data and implementing change.

Even at that, however, reaching the promise of NCLB won’t be easy, according to ECS.

“It will be far easier [for states] to meet the requirements of the law than to meet its goals,” Christie said. Whether states do their part to comply or not, she said, the real test is translating those efforts into improved student achievement. “That’s where the rubber really hits the road,” she added.

Links:

Education Commission of the States
http://www.ecs.org

ECS Report to the Nation: State Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act
http://www.ecs.org/ecsmain.asp?page=/html/special/nclb/reporttothenation/reporttothenation.htm

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov