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Numbers Game: Ed Sector Says States Make AYP Easy

Several studies have documented how states have set low expectations to make it easier for their schools and districts to make AYP. The latest one is here. But Education Sector's Kevin Carey digs a little deeper in this report, explaining the statistical sleights of hand states use to avoid declaring their schools and districts in need of improvement. Here's a quick list based on Carey's research:

Delay the pain: Set long-term goals that postpone large portions of the achievement gains until the deadline for universal proficiency looms. Several states hold schools accountable for making a third of the progress toward the goal in the first eight years under the law, leaving two-thirds of the achievement gains for the final four years before the goal at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Raise the 'n' size: The 'n' identifies the number of students each school must have in a subgroup (i.e. African-Americans, Hispanics, English-language-learners, and special education) for that subgroup's scores to count under the accountability measures. In states with high 'n' sizes, schools may not have to meet achievement targets in all subgroups. That improves schools' odds of making AYP.

Increase confidence intervals: The measure is much like the margins of error that pollsters report. If a school falls short of its AYP goals but is within the margin of error, it is considered to be making AYP. But states never report schools that meet achievement goals within the margin of error as failing to make AYP, Carey points out.

Index performance: Some states give schools partial credit for students who achieve in categories below proficiency. The indexes can give schools too much credit for low levels of performance, Carey writes, especially if states set low expectations.

Average it out: In determining whether districts are making AYP, many states allow districts to average students' scores across the three grade spans: elementary, middle, and high schools. More than half of states also say that a district would fail to make AYP only if its students fail to reach the achievement goals in every grade span.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved each of these statistical methods in the states, Carey writes. And every year, states submit proposals to change how they measure AYP. "State amendments to accountability plans are always designed to make it easier for schools to demonstrate success, not harder," he writes.

Carey also notes how Alabama has used each of these statistical methods to increase the percentage of schools making AYP. The percentage grew from 23 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 87 percent three years later—all without major increases in student achievement.

Carey also ranks states based on how easy it is for their schools to make AYP.

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