Almost 10 Years Later, Has No Child Left Behind Lost Its Bite?

John Mooney | September 23, 2010 | Education
No Child Left Behind still labels schools, but educators are starting to question what those labels mean

As mandated by No Child Left Behind, the federal law signed by former President George W. Bush in 2001, notices are going out this month to New Jersey school districts and students’ families. The message was once considered crucial: Did a school make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or was it labeled “in need of improvement.”

But as more and more schools get added to the needs improvement list, and the yearly benchmarks for AYP schools get higher, the announcements may have lost some of their urgency.

Essentially, the law requires schools to demonstrate that all its students are proficient in language arts and math, including those with special needs, minorities, and low income. Proficiency benchmarks go up every year, with the goal being 100 percent proficiency by 2014. And missing even one out of 40 categories puts a school on the list.

Off the List and On

West Orange will see its high school fall off the improvement list for the first time in seven years. The town’s Hazel Avenue School is making its debut — two years after winning a national Blue Ribbon Award.

A school’s status is almost entirely determined by state test scores. The elementary school fell short in three of 40 required categories: language arts scores of special-needs students, Hispanic and low-income students.

But while there was celebration in the high school and some chagrin in Hazel Avenue, the school’s communications officer said there isn’t the public emotion there once was over a school’s status.

“People just don’t get as alarmed as they they did when it started,” said Jeanine Genauer, who is also the outgoing president of the state’s school public relations association. “To be honest, they care more about the NJ Monthly list [of top high schools], because that’s what real estate agents look at.”

Clearing the Hurdles

For many urban districts, the benchmarks are a very high hurdle, with some schools on the list for eight years. But being on the list is only the beginning: with it comes all kinds of sanctions, including the requirement to start to “restructure” at year six.

It’s not just urban districts that run into trouble, however. According to preliminary results, less than half of Burlington County and Middlesex County schools met federal benchmarks this year.

AYP at Your Service

Local school officials are wont to dismiss test results, and some are using Adequate Yearly Progress status for their own purposes.

In Elizabeth, making AYP is one of the main criteria in evaluating principals and other administrators. The district — where only five schools are not somewhere on the improvement list and the high school is in year eight — also plans to use AYP status as it begins to bestow stars on its schools.

“We know AYP by itself isn’t perfect, but it is still one of the main measures,” said Donald Goncalves, the district’s communications director. “We’re just trying to expand on it.”

According to Goncalves and others, though, the sanctions have some bite, serving as an incentive in their own right. Schools in the early years on the list must offer students a chance to pick another school or at least receive after-school tutoring by outside services. Few choose the former, but the supplemental tutoring is utilized by thousands across the state.

Unwanted Attention

More incentive may come in later years, in the form of unwanted attention from the state, which sends in review teams and consultants for schools that persistently fall short.

“The last thing districts want is help from the state, and that’s still the end of the story with this law,” said Robert Copeland, the Piscataway superintendent.

But he, too, said that winding up on the list resonates less and less with the public. “They are getting more educated to AYP, and as more and more schools are on the list, more are asking what does it mean anymore?” he said.

Willingboro has some schools in year seven or eight, deep into state-mandated improvement plans. But the law has no sanctions if it doesn’t bring up the scores, and eventually every district is likely to be well-represented if the mandate of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 holds.

“If you hit year eight, then what happens?” said David Hespe, the Willingboro superintendent. “That’s the next big policy question. We have already restructured. What happens after that?”

“Getting leverage is all about showing consequences,” he said. “But what are the consequences?”

Rewriting the Law

The answer to Hespe’s question rests on the reauthorization of the federal law, which was due three years ago but still faces a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans and now may not see action for a couple more years.

President Obama has said he wants to revamp many of the more onerous provisions, including the all-or-nothing AYP system. Republicans have sought to scale it back even further, complaining about the federal intrusion in local schools.

And then there’s politics.

“The Republicans are gunning for Obama, and they don’t want to give him any victories at this point,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. “And by the time this comes up, we may have more than half of all schools not making AYP, and it really won’t mean much.”

Jennings said about a third of all schools in the nation now fall short of the requirements, with less than 2 percent of children in those schools opting to leave and maybe 10 percent taking advantage of tutoring.

“It’s mostly become a label and the label has lost its sting,” he said. ‘Then we’ll get to 2014, and nothing will happen. No penalties.”

“It’s become just a goal,” Jennings said. “But we’ve had those before, and when we didn’t reach them, we moved on to something else.”