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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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/12/2009 - 09:45 am.

    NCLB is distorting schools progress…Minnesota schools are *not* failing, damnit!!

    Oh, alrighty then.

    How do we know? Well, because a leftist propaganda factory supported by the teachers union says the news is just too harsh to be taken seriously…it simply *can’t* be true.

    Except the news confirms the data gathered in surveys taken by stakeholders that have a vested interest in genuine information.

    NAEP reported that only 37% of MN public school 4th graders read at a proficient level.

    NAEP reported that only 44% of MN public school 8th graders are proficient at math.

    Minnesota’s Basic Skills, and Comprehensive tests show that public school students regress as they move through the system.

    1/3 of public school students reporting to MnSCU colleges require remedial coursework before advancing to college level curriculum.

    Two of our largest school districts fail to graduate more than 40% of their high school students.

    I knew that Mr. Lois Quam’s paperhangers would be working overtime to scratch out a response to the bad news that continues to shed light on the plight of Minnesota’s public school students, but I wasn’t prepared for just how desperate and vapid the finished product would be.

    Could be that it’s just getting harder to find fiction writers with the education necessary to write believable fairy tales, I guess. Perhaps a few refresher courses in English might be in order.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/12/2009 - 10:33 am.

    Thank you for the excellent article, Mr. Fitzgerald. To borrow from my own comments elsewhere on Minnpost:

    If any business or even any of us in our own homes were held to such continuously-rising, total perfection-requiring standards, all of us would be judged to be failing, too.

    For example, I have noticed no improvement in certain conservative commentator’s posts over the past few months, but just endless repetition of the same factually-skewed and reality-challenged perspectives. Furthermore, since there was one post that was particularly bad, I must, by the rules of NCLB pronounce this commentator to be “failing.” No doubt we’ll have to impose sanctions and bring someone else in to write his posts from now on.

    But seriously, the real, and quite easily discernable purpose of NCLB, at least as it’s implemented in Minnesota, seems to be to make sure that the public thinks our schools are all failing. Then, it is hoped, the public can be duped into punishing them by cutting their funding so that they’ll be forced to do better (which, of course, will work as well as expecting you to make your own laundry cleaner from one load to the next without wasting money on detergent, trying to force your car to get better gas mileage from one week to the next by simply not putting any gas in the tank, or by dealing with the respiratory effects of polluted air by refusing to breathe).

    We need a more adequate, less punitive way of judging the performance of our schools, our teachers, our students and their families, than basing our judgment on a “continuous quality improvement” model given up as impractical to the point of being destructive by businesses at least a decade ago.

    I’ve seen a poster in various offices over the years that says, “I’ve gotten so used to doing more with less, that I can now do anything with nothing.” Of course it’s a bitterly sarcastic joke, but when it comes to school funding, some of our conservative friends, seem to think that’s exactly how things should work.

    For these folks, their old complaint about school funding: “It’s never enough!” has been turned on it’s head. For them, where school funding is concerned, “It’s never too little… less is always better.”

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/12/2009 - 11:36 am.

    I guess, when the post is as bad as this one, one is left with little to work with other than the comments, eh Greg?

    What, exactly, did you find in John’s factless little screed to be excellent?

    Did you appreciate all of the links to source information John did not provide to back up his opinion?

    Or was it John’s complete failure to coherently refute a *single* data point in the first place?

    To anyone who knows anything about public education, or NCLB, this piece provides absolutely nothing of substance….watch:

    “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.”

    I’m guessing that the schools that have met the goals would disagree. Anyone want to bet that successful schools will not highlight their achievement this coming school year?


    “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.”

    Eh, yup. It’s called “No Child Left Behind” for a reason. *All* kids, irrespective of what “sub group” a district plants them, are expected to show *some* improvement each year. Given the dismal test scores they are starting with, it really shouldn’t be hard at all, at least in the beginning.

    Oh, and John has gotten a little carried away with the truth. A school can judged to have failed to meet the requirements, not the district…unless every school in that district fails, which I guess in the case of Mpls and SP is entirely possible.

    “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.”

    Now surely, even Greg caught the inanity of this statement? I mean, they expect most of the students to actually participate? How rude!

    And once again, the “failing district” “mistake”.

    And on it goes. One big gust of hot air.

    Seriously; I’m really dying to know, Greg. Upon what basis do you judge this opinion piece “excellent”?

    Can you direct the readers to the highlights, or were you merely “flapping your gums” (again)?

  4. Submitted by John Fitzgerald on 08/12/2009 - 02:02 pm.

    Mr. Swift,

    Your opinion is duly noted. You certainly must have quite a bit of time on your hands to offer your thoughts. Kudos to you!

    As far as NCLB, these schools are not failures and the children in them are not failures. Wise leadership would help those schools grow, not punish them for failing to meet an arbitrary measurement. But then, NCLB was not born from wise leadership, was it, Mr. Swift?

    I for one am going to spend the evening barbecuing with my children and maybe mowing the lawn when it cools off this evening. I will most certainly not be giving any thought to the meaningless NCLB results. I wish for you a life as happy as mine, Mr. Swift.

    John Fitzgerald

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/12/2009 - 09:57 pm.

    John, take comfort in the fact that Mr. Swift has had an opportunity to share his concerns about the state of education in St.Paul, during his unsuccessful campaign for school board.

    By all accounts it would appear that Mr. Swift held some views about the education system in St. Paul that did not translate into more than a few votes. Although it is obvious that Mr. Swift is passionate about the subject. He has yet to garner the support for his ideas that would result in meaningful change. Below is a quote about Mr. Swift efforts.

    //Concerned by the failure of St. Paul public schools to provide anything approaching a quality, academically centered education for thousands of kids, Tom Swift ran a hugely unsuccessful campaign in 2002 for the Saint Paul Public School Board.//

    Personally I believe that Mr. Swift is still waiting for President Reagan to abolish the Dept of Education.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/13/2009 - 11:48 am.

    I see NCLB as a conservative initiative (supported by clueless liberals) to destroy public education.

    First of all, the real test of a school’s success is not how children score on a multiple-choice test but how many children graduate with good math and English skills (including the ability to write a coherent, grammatical, and well-argued essay), good general knowledge of history, geography, government, science, and the arts; and a life-long love of learning.

    What I hear from teacher’s is that their principals force them to focus on the tests to the exclusion of content knowledge in subjects like history and science. This has two harmful effects:

    1) It turns school into mindless yet nerve-wracking drudgery, as students are endlessly drilled with the knowledge that failing the test could cause their school to be reorganized or shut down.

    2) It cheats students of content-oriented lessons. America is already an anti-intellectual country, and if students don’t learn facts or develop an appreciation for literature or the arts in school, there’s likely to be no one at home to encourage them.

    Both these trends serve right-wing politics, the first by creating a population that hated their public school experience and the second by fostering ignorance of everything except basic job skills and pop culture, so that people are gullible and easily swayed when confronted with right-wing propaganda.

    For all the right-wing cries of the “The schools have too much money!” I wonder why the wealthy spend $20,000 or more a year to send their children to Breck or Blake, where they enjoy small classes and a content-rich curriculum and are exempt from NCLB.

  7. Submitted by Leslie Hittner - Winona on 08/14/2009 - 05:30 am.

    1. NCLB and the AYP concept will eventually lead to the failure of every school in the country if the law remains unchanged. This law mandates perfection! Those of us in education are simply hoping that we can be among the last schools to be placed upon the list.

    2. One commenter stated that it is not unreasonable to expect each student to make some minimum amount of progress each year. He assumes that is what AYP means. Wrong! AYP compares this year’s students with last years students – in the same grade. Thus, this year’s 4th graders are compared with last year’s 4th graders. AYP measurements do not look at student progress. Those measurements look at school progress – based upon the assumption that all students are equal. That is a flawed assumption and all educators know it.

    I have often been on opposite sides of the educational debate with John Fitzgerald, but not this time.

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