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Minnesota schools: NCLB again distorts student progress

The Minnesota Department of Education this week released the number of schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Unsurprisingly, that number is now close to half the schools in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Education this week released the number of schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Unsurprisingly, that number is now close to half the schools in Minnesota.

MDE said 1,048 schools, or 46 percent of the state’s schools, failed to meet AYP goals this year, up from 936 in 2008 and 727 in 2007. 

The figure would have been higher, but according to the Star Tribune, MDE “included about 300 more schools than it has in previous years, to better comply with the federal law.”

The number of schools not meeting AYP grows each year because the NCLB is meant not to highlight student achievement but to brand schools as failing. AYP is a false measurement of achievement. Even the most ardent of public education’s detractors will find it contrary to common sense that more than half the schools in the state can’t educate their students. These “results” are ludicrous.

List of ‘failing’ schools grows each year
In fact, the number of schools listed as “failing” has grown each year since NCLB has been law. Last year, just under half of Minnesota schools were listed as failing.

Here’s how NCLB works: States develop a standardized test and give it to all students once each year. Students are divided into subgroups depending on their race or special conditions, i.e. special education or English language learner. If one subgroup fails to meet AYP, the entire school and district fails. Not only must students show proficiency, the school must make sure enough students take the test. If too many students miss the test, the school and district fail to meet AYP.

Here’s another problem with AYP: Punishment comes only to those schools that have enough poor students enrolled to qualify for federal funds that are spent to help poor students learn to read. If a school does not qualify for federal funds, then missing AYP carries no consequences. If a school does qualify, then missing AYP becomes a yearly descent into sanctions that funnels federal funds from helping poor kids read to paying for private tutors or for travel to other schools.

This smacks of an elitism that Minnesotans will find objectionable. Holding schools accountable for their academic performance is a good thing, but AYP results are not a true reflection of student ability and therefore do not hold schools truly accountable. 

No other measurement of growth
One problem with the AYP measurement that has bothered educators since NCLB was enacted in 2002 was that it offered no measurement of growth other than a school’s AYP achievement. A school that did not meet AYP in 2008 could have jumped an enormous amount in 2009, but if it still fell below AYP measurements, no one would know it. That’s why state lawmakers this spring agreed to add “growth models” to the AYP score. Parents can now see if student scores are growing even if schools aren’t meeting AYP.

But the new growth model measurement is no substitute for AYP. If a school fails, it fails. If a school has a lot of poor students and fails too many years in a row, it will still face sanctions that grow more and more harsh each year.

NCLB is a plan to undermine confidence in public education, not to improve education. Citing AYP results, even for debate purposes, legitimizes the false measurement. Smart, responsible educational policy should focus on creating accountability standards that result in real improvement, not labeling and stigmatizing schools.

Minnesota schools are not failing. Minnesotans have, for generations, created strong schools. Just as our values are clear, so are our educational challenges. 

Schools are not afraid of measurement, but inaccurate measurement does more harm than good. For the sake of our children and future growth as a state, we need more comprehensive accountability measurements for students and teachers that fairly and accurately evaluate performance.

John Fitzgerald is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.