With AYP, 'No Child Left Behind' takes aim at 'achievement gap'
Is the law's strategy for improving test score results useful or off-target?
by Sheila Simmons
The nation's "achievement gap" is narrowing, according to a recent report by the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
In an October news release, the group calls the evidence of a decrease in racial disparities "positive news about the power of the No Child Left Behind Act to get educators focused on closing the achievement gap."
But a number of local and national education experts express doubts that NCLB is having a positive impact on the educational achievement of poor students and students of color.
There is widespread praise for the law's required breakdown of school data to illuminate the inadequate education provided to students of color and students who are economically disadvantaged - revealing huge gaps in student performance so deplorable that they are a call to action.
But some also raise concerns that the law doesn't focus enough on the steps needed to equalize educational opportunities and that its punitive measures may undermine its equity goals. Critics say the law - and the enforcement of "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) targets to counter the achievement gap - may work to the detriment of the underserved groups whose performance it aims to improve.
Boston researcher Anne Wheelock, who studies issues of educational equity, maintains that the high-stakes environment surrounding AYP reports "distracts us from what might be some real strategy for closing the achievement gap."
Such approaches might include raised academic expectations, in-depth assignments, high-level classes, across-the-board quality teachers, and adequate resources.
But instead, Wheelock argues, "The schools and districts that don't have very deep capacity for educating kids . . . start looking for short cuts so that they can look better, rather than necessarily be better."
Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, adds, "Our concern is the pressure to focus entirely on the results of standardized tests - that students who are not doing well will in essence have their schooling reduced to test preparation."
"That's not high-quality education," he maintains. "It may appear to close the gap on the test that is being coached for, but it won't close the overall achievement gap."
NCLB requires schools and districts not only to make adequate yearly progress (in 2004 for Pennsylvania, that meant achieving proficiency rates of 45 percent in reading and 35 percent in math), but it also requires them to break out those scores, or "disaggregate data," along racial, income and special learning needs categories known as "subgroups." Schools - and all of the reported individual subgroups - must meet targets for adequate yearly progress or be subjected to punitive measures ranging from a warning in the first year of inadequate performance to complete restructuring after the sixth consecutive year.
But in the Philadelphia School District, the breakdown of data at many schools may be less useful. Individual schools lack a meaningful barometer of the educational opportunities and performance of White and low-poverty students - as most of the student population is high-poverty and African-American. Data on the test performance of subgroups are only counted if there are 40 or more students in the school's affected group.
Salome Thomas-EL, a principal, author, and doctoral student who is on sabbatical from his post at Reynolds Elementary School, explains, "In a building like mine, my entire school is the subgroup."
The student population at Reynolds is nearly 99 percent African American, as well as high-poverty. Its Black and economically disadvantaged subgroups virtually overlap with its overall scores, and it has no other subgroups that it must prove are on the par with the school's overall academic progress.
So Thomas-EL uses the data to compare his school against schools with the same demographics.
"It does help us to compare and see schools with similar backgrounds that are success stories . because we have to build on our successes each year."
He adds, "One of the things [the legislation] has done is sound the alarm for educators to look at how all children are performing in every building in every school district."
Districtwide, gap remains large
In Philadelphia overall, the breakdown of data provided by No Child Left Behind allows tracking of whether the Black, Latino, and Asian students who make up 85 percent of the District overall are closing performance disparities with the School District's 15 percent White population.
In the School District in 2004, Whites outscored Blacks in reading by 25 percentage points, and Latinos by 28 points. The gap is even wider in math: Whites outscored Blacks by 30 percentage points and Latinos by 27.
The District's economically disadvantaged subgroup scored only slightly higher in both areas than did the Black and Latino subgroups - suggesting that the racial achievement gap in Philadelphia actually reflects overlapping issues of poverty, class, and race.
Compared to the prior year, the gap between Philadelphia's Black and White students in reading and math scores barely changed in 2004. The same was true for the gap between Latinos and Whites.
"Looking at the results of disaggregated data by race is very good, and very important - because if you don't, the overall picture can mask the problem," Wheelock explains.