U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is warning Congress that unless changes are made to a key facet of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the country is on track to see 82 percent of its schools labeled "failing" this year.
He drove home that message in testimony Wednesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, but drew swift criticism from education advocates and groups that questioned the department's methodology and motives in issuing that estimate.
Testifying on the pending reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of ESEA, the education secretary said: "Four out of five schools in America may not meet their goals under NCLB by next year. The consequences under the current law are very clear: States and districts all across America may have to intervene in more and more schools each year, implementing the exact same interventions regardless of schools' individual needs."
He was referring specifically to adequate yearly progress, or AYP, which is the cornerstone of the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools that don't hit annual performance targets—for their students or for smaller subgroups, such as English-language learners—face an escalating set of sanctions. The law aims to make all students 100 percent proficient in reading and math by 2014, but as that deadline nears, more and more schools are failing to hit performance targets.
The U.S. Department of Education's 82 percent failure number is an estimate only, based on best-case assumptions that all schools will improve at the rate of the top-performing quartile of schools. To come up with that estimate, the department used four years worth of AYP data, from the 2006-07 through the 2009-10 school years. Statisticians examined the amount of gain on state reading and math tests and used that gain to build projections compared against the states' annual performance targets. The department took into account highly technical parts of the law, such as safe harbor or "n" sizes (the minimum size for a subgroup to trigger accountability.)
Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, which tracks schools' AYP progress, says he can't believe that number, especially since it's more than a doubling of the number of schools that didn't make AYP in 2009-10. "I hope they're right," said Jennings, who urged the department to put out a technical paper explaining its calculations. "They're dealing with their credibility."
At best, the number is highly misleading, said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. He said that not making AYP during one particular year does not mean a school is "failing", a word that NCLB doesn't even use. NCLB sanctions don't kick in until schools fail to make AYP for two consecutive years.
"I think they're going to regret this," Barone said. "While I understand their frustration in trying to pass the law, I think it's only going to hurt them. They're creating an atmosphere of fear."
Both DFER and the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit, disagree with the department's methodology.
Sandy Kress, a former White House aide who played a key role in working with Congress to craft NCLB, pointed out that there might be a good reason the number is so high: because states insisted on working their way slowly towards the 100 percent proficiency goal at first, then raising expectations much faster once 2014 neared—akin to a balloon payment.
"States said they needed time to get reforms under way," said Kress, who said that Duncan was trying to create "a little bit of panic."
Andrew J. Rotherham, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm, said Duncan's testimony will likely only contribute to the confusion over the law's AYP requirements. "It's not especially responsible rhetoric," he said.
Other groups, however, pointed out that the larger message carried throughout Duncan's testimony is important. Even though AYP is a complex issue, "this measure shows how the accountability system does not work. It's very easy to wrap your head around that 82 percent of our schools might be labeled as failing," said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.
It's also important to note that Duncan has already relaxed some of the sanctions for schools not making AYP, such as allowing districts to do their own tutoring (rather than using an outside provider), and allowing tutoring to be provided before schools have to offer to send students to higher-performing schools (the choice provision).
The Obama administration's blueprint for ESEA reauthorization calls for pushing back the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency and replacing that goal with new standards aimed at getting students ready for college or the workforce by 2020. States would be given more leeway to intervene in most districts and schools that are making modest gains. But the bottom 5 percent of schools in each state would be required to follow one of the Education Department's four turnaround models.
Clearly, Duncan is trying to send a message that will resonate with members of Congress, who probably would rather not see schools back home hit with a "failing" label. Whether this is enough to jump-start reauthorization is an open question. One thing may be telling: By more than halfway through the hearing, no member of the committee had asked any specific questions or called attention to the number.
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan arrives to testify before the House Education and the Workforce Committee. (Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty)