Understanding the No Child Left Behind Act

In spite of all the recent press on the subject, the general public still does not have a clear understanding of the No Child Left Behind Act. That isn’t surprising as the legislation is so complex that many educators still do not grasp all of the law’s subtleties. But parents with children in the public school system must begin to have a basic understanding of NCLB if they are to be able to fully support the education of their children.

The complexity of the legislation has led many to use an onion analogy. As experts begin to formulate an understanding of the more than 110 page document, layers begin to emerge, much like the layers that emerge with the peeling of an onion. All have at their fundamental core the desire to improve the educational system in America.

As noted, NCLB is short for the “No Child Left Behind” Act, legislation that completely revised another landmark piece of educational legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first enacted in 1965, set federal policy for public education, especially for those students referred to as disadvantaged. ESEA encompasses Title 1, a program whereby federal funds are distributed to help disadvantaged students get a better start in school. There had been no major revisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act until the No Child Left Behind Act was completed in 2001. NCLB effectively revised the ESEA and became federal law when President Bush signed the legislation on January 8, 2002.

In essence, the No Child Left Behind act has five fundamental components. The first two components stipulate that all states are required to define a set of “learning standards” for all students and then, that all students will be tested to determine if they have mastered these standards. These two aspects of the law simply mirrored the educational movement already underway in the country. Most states were well on their way to meeting both of these aspects of the law. Not only had many states already defined standards and testing procedures, many had already implemented these concepts. The second two components of the law focus on the concept of accountability. The third prong, referred to as Adequate Yearly Progress, stipulates the percentage of students who must currently demonstrate mastery of the standards. That component also sets a specified timeline of increased performance to ensure that every student is able to demonstrate mastery of the required standards by the year 2014.

The fourth fundamental component, and the most controversial, connects to the third by setting forth the series of escalating consequences for schools when students are unable to meet the respective criteria. Schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress are placed on a watchlist with a series of escalating consequences should the school remain on that list. Schools that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress in year one receive formal notice of their failure. If the school fails to meet the standards a second time in succession, then students in a Title I failing school must allow students from that school to transfer to another school in the district that has met those standards. The series of consequences grows until year five when the law stipulates that the State may take on oversight of the school.

The fifth, and final major prong is in regards to teacher quality. NCLB specifies that teachers in the core subject areas of math, language arts, science, social studies, and the arts must all be “Highly Qualified.” The law seeks to address the issue of non-certified teachers or teachers instructing outside of their certification in an attempt to ensure that every child has a competent teacher. Each of the law’s aspects have ramifications and nuances that make each component complex and difficult to understand for the average parent. To comprehend fully, parents need to peel back each of the layers to understand how each component might impact their child.

For more information on the law, visit the federal NCLB web site: www.nclb.gov.

Highly Qualified Teachers

During the first few months of 2004, the Bush administration made some modest changes in the landmark federal legislation known as the No Child Left Behind Act. One such modification addressed concerns surrounding the “highly qualified” teacher requirements specified within the law.

When NCLB was enacted in 2002, the law specified that a “highly qualified” teacher was to be in charge in every public school classroom by the 2005-2006 school year. In addition, the law mandated that schools not only report the percentage of teachers in their respective schools without such qualifications but that schools were to send a letter home to the parents of any child who was receiving instruction from a teacher without those qualifications.

The original definition specified in the law had three critical parts. To be “highly qualified,” a teacher had to have earned a bachelors degree, been awarded full state certification, and to have formal qualifications in each core subject taught by the teacher.

As simple as it sounds, the original definition led to some major problems when it was applied. Perhaps the most noteworthy example was that of Montana’s “Teacher of the Year” for 2003, Jon Runnalls. A middle school teacher of almost thirty years, Runnalls had taught numerous subjects in his small rural school. Although he had a strong academic background in general science, Runnalls had no formal qualifications in Chemistry, Biology or Physics, a specific requirement of the new law.

In response to this and numerous other complaints, three changes were made to the original law. First, teachers in rural school districts were given 3 full years to become highly qualified in all subjects they teach, provided that they could demonstrate they are highly qualified in at least one subject. These teachers will still need to gain certification in every subject they teach but now have until 2007 to gain the certification.

Second, the criteria for science teachers to be considered highly qualified changed so that if the teacher demonstrated certification in the broad field of science or in the study of individual fields such as Chemistry or Physics, they would be considered highly qualified”. This situation addressed Runnall’s qualification issue. However, changes in the law did not address other subject area issues such as social studies. As it currently stands, NCLB still mandates that a high school instructor teaching economics must demonstrate qualifications specifically in economics and not just the general field of social studies.

Third, to address the issue of multi-subject teachers, changes were made to authorize states to develop a single, streamlined process for current multi-subject teachers to demonstrate that they are highly qualified in each subject. This provision enables the aforementioned social studies teacher an avenue for becoming highly qualified in both history and economics.

Critics still point out, that as with all aspects of the NCLB, the White House demands for an increase in expectations will not automatically cause those expectations to be met. Those critics note that the public schools that employ under-qualified personnel actually so only because of the extreme difficulty they have in finding qualified personnel for the profession.

Teacher concerns regarding the law may be found at the American Federation of Teachers web site: www.aft.org/topics/nclb

Adequate Yearly Progress

An appearance on the NCLB failure list startles parents and community members in that town, causing residents to question the performance of their hometown school. But, in reality, do these No Child Left Behind AYP results give a clear indication of the quality of a school’s overall educational program?

The answer, it appears, is a definitive no. To be placed on the Adequate Yearly Progress watch lists, a school need only fail one of a multitude of separate statistical calculations. Therefore, placement on the list only indicates that some subset of the student population in a particular school failed to meet the testing standards.

To explain the criteria, let us examine a specific subject at a specific grade level at a hypothetical school. For the sake of argument, we select the subject of Reading at the eleventh grade level.

First, to make adequate yearly progress, a school must test at least 95 percent of the students in eleventh grade. A failure to test 95 percent of the students results in automatic AYP failure no matter what students achieve for scores on the standardized tests. Essentially, schools must test virtually every student.

Second, a specific percentage of seven separate student populations must meet or exceed the state standard in reading for a school to be considered as meeting AYP status. Each state may set its own respective standards and the percentage of students that must pass that benchmark is established by NCLB language. Let us say, hypothetically, that the percentage is 60% (the percentage varies by state because some have set higher standards for learning than others).

Again, seven separate student groups must meet the required percentage of 60%. First, 60% of the entire eleventh grade student population at the school must meet or exceed the standard. If it does not, then the school fails to make the standard.

Then, six other separate subgroups are analyzed, and each must meet the same criteria of 60%. These six subgroups are Special Education, Economically Disadvantaged, Limited English Proficient, Multi-ethnic, Minority (depending on state) and African American students. If just one of these subgroups misses the 60% standard, the entire school is deemed not to have met Adequate Yearly Progress. The failure to make AYP “title” is given regardless of how well the other groups scored.

Adding to the complexity to the analysis, the categories are not mutually exclusive. A white, economically disadvantaged child’s score becomes a part of two test groups, whole school and economically disadvantaged. An economically disadvantaged, special education student’s score becomes a part of three subsets. Educators note that if this person does not make Adequate Yearly Progress, he or she has an enormous impact on a school’s AYP status.

In addition to the Reading results, math scores are analyzed as well. Again, schools must test 95 percent of all students, and then meet a prescribed percentage for the math standards for each of the aforementioned subgroups or the school fails to make AYP in mathematics.

Currently, this process then takes place at fourth and eighth grade, with different percentages and standards; in all there are three sets of scores (fourth, eighth and eleventh grades), seven groups of students deep for the two academic subjects. Further complicating the scoring is that at the elementary level average daily attendance criteria is weighed while at the high school, graduation rates are also part of the equation.

Progression on the failure and school consequence list occurs when a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for consecutive years. In establishing the yardstick for this process, NCLB mandates that a failure in any one subject by any subgroup followed by a failure in the same subject of any other subgroup the following year places that school on the second year of the NCLB consequence ladder.

To better understand the ramifications of AYP, visit the American Association of School Administrators web site at: www.aasa.org

States Penalized for Setting High Standards

Since the inception of NCLB, the negative impact the federal act has on states that have high student standards has confused many people. If a state has set higher educational standards for its students than other states, how come that state has more difficulty meeting the federal NCLB Act?

When it comes to school accountability, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has four major premises to it. First it mandates that states have a set of educational standards and an assessment tool to determine if students have met those standards. Second, the Act stipulates that states must set three levels of educational achievement on that assessment, levels described as basic, proficient and advanced. Third, NCLB demands that all students reach the proficient level by the year 2014 and that states set annual targets that bring them from their current status to the 100% proficiency level in the years ahead. And fourth, NCLB sets consequences for schools failing to meet the annual proficiency targets.

To understand the impact of higher standards we turn to the tiny State of Maine. Prior to the enactment of NCLB, Maine already had a set of learning standards, called the “Learning Results”. Maine also had a set of assessments in place, the Maine Educational Assessment tests, given annually at fourth, eighth, and eleventh grades.

The Maine Learning Results and MEA tests far exceed the scope of NCLB. The federal Act stipulates testing in only three areas: reading, math and science while Maine’s Learning Results have eight content areas: English/Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Science, Foreign Language, Health and Physical Education, Visual and Performing Arts, and Career Preparation. In addition, the MEA tests in Maine have for years tested students in Reading, Writing, Math, Science, Social Studies, Health and Visual and Performing Arts.

A major mismatch in the federal NCLB Act and Maine’s student assessment criteria came when that state attempted to mesh the educational achievement levels it had already set with those of NCLB. Maine had continually used four descriptor categories instead of three, achievement levels of ‘Exceeds Standards’, ‘Meets Standards’, ‘Partially Meets Standards’ and ‘Does Not Meet Standards.’

The fundamental clash came with the definition of proficiency, a definition each state has been allowed to set for itself. Maine elected to set that bar directly in the middle of its four categories. For a student to be proficient under Maine standards that student must attain a cut score on the MEA test that places the student in the ‘Meets’ or ‘Exceeds’ category. Students who attain the ‘Partially Meets’ criteria are deemed not to have met proficiency under Maine’s NCLB response plan.

Ultimately, Maine could have selected a different level of proficiency, one that included the ‘Partially Meets’ category, and still met the basis of NCLB. In fact, many educators in the state had expected such a choice, especially given the challenging cut scores the state was using and the standards set for reaching those scores.

However, Maine officials felt that such a choice would have been a lowering of the standards the State has been setting for its children. The decision to use the higher criteria was made to reflect that expectation.

In the first year alone more than 100 Maine schools were unable to meet the required status, even though the initial percentages are far less than the 100% requirement that exists for 2014. By selecting an elevated standard, Maine hasessentially made it even more difficult for students to reach the so called”proficiency” status. It has also made it more difficult for its schools to avoidbeing labeled as failures under the adequate yearly progress criteria.

NCLB, though designed to increase student achievement, actually penalizes the states that have set higher standards for their students and rewards those with lower standards. Those with lower standards will have far fewerschools on the AYP failure and consequence lists.

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