Education law is tougher on diverse schools
Schools with more targets to meet under NCLB were far more likely to be branded as in need of improvement.
by Paul Socolar
Some critics of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have argued that large schools and schools with a diverse student population are penalized by the law's provisions. School performance results from 2004 in Philadelphia appear to bear out this charge.
Few of the School District's larger and more diverse schools achieved what the state considers "adequate yearly progress" toward achievement goals set under NCLB. Some now argue that smaller and more homogeneous schools may be getting off easy while some relatively successful large or diverse schools may be getting unfairly labeled.
"The research nationally makes it very clear that there is what amounts to a diversity penalty," said Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based organization that has been a strong critic of NCLB.
The law as a result "gives an inadequate identification of which schools really need extra help," Neill stated.
Schools must meet all targets
"Adequate yearly progress" (AYP), which is defined by each state based on specifications in the federal law, has become the most closely watched measure of school performance. To "make AYP," all schools and school districts receiving federal funds must meet all their targets for test scores and test participation for the overall student population and also for demographic "subgroups."
High schools must also meet targets for graduation rates, and in Pennsylvania, elementary and middle schools must meet targets for student attendance.
This year, 160 of 265 District schools (or 60 percent) met all their AYP targets set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. That represented almost a threefold increase over last year's results. Public attention has focused on these significant gains.
Lost in the celebration is the fact that some schools had many more targets to reach than others, and schools with more targets to meet were far less likely to meet all their targets as required by NCLB.
The reason schools have different numbers of targets is the provision of the law requiring that test performance and participation be broken down by "subgroups." The provision was an attempt to promote equity in the educational outcomes for different populations within a school.
Every subgroup of children is expected to achieve both proficiency and test participation targets in reading and in mathematics. Potential subgroups include different racial and ethnic groups, students with limited English proficiency, economically disadvantaged students, and special education students. But in Pennsylvania, a subgroup target only applies to a school if the subgroup contains 40 or more students.
Smaller and less diverse schools are not likely to reach the 40-student threshold for most subgroups and can essentially fly under the AYP radar, escaping any accountability for the performance of subgroups of students that may be disadvantaged.
In Philadelphia, several large public schools had to meet the test score and participation targets for each of as many as six or seven subgroups, while some schools had no subgroups to report and only had to meet targets for the overall student population.
More subgroups, less success
Of District schools that had four or more subgroups reporting, only one-fifth (four schools out of 20) made all their AYP targets - excluding those schools with selective admission criteria. These schools with four or more subgroups had to meet 21 or more targets.
But Philadelphia schools reporting one subgroup or none had much less trouble getting to AYP. Of these schools, 24 out of 25 made adequate yearly progress - when schools with special admissions criteria were excluded. These schools had to meet nine or fewer targets.
While these results in Philadelphia do not prove that having more subgroups is what prevents schools from making AYP, the findings are consistent with two recent research studies in California that show that the more subgroups a school has, the less likely it is to make AYP.