The taint of failure could sully a majority of Texas public schools this summer under increasingly onerous federal education standards that no longer apply in most other states.
The No Child Left Behind Act this year requires that more than 90 percent of students in each school and district pass the state’s standardized tests in reading and math to meet federal accountability standards. Next year, the requirement is 100 percent.
Nearly half of the 8,500 public schools in Texas last year failed to meet the federal “Adequate Yearly Progress” requirements, or AYP, which called for 87 percent of students to pass reading and 83 percent to pass math. Each major student group, such as low-income students and those in special education, also needed to hit those thresholds.
By comparison, under its state standards, Texas deemed about 6 percent of schools to be academically unacceptable in 2011, the last time its ratings were issued due to the transition to a new testing system. The federal passing rates in 2012 were comparable to what schools needed to qualify for the state’s top two accountability ratings: recognized and exemplary.
Given the rising federal standards, the number of schools missing the mark is expected to grow when ratings are released in August unless federal officials grant Texas relief similar to what 39 other states and the District of Columbia have already received.
“It’s going to be everybody as you move toward that unreachable goal,” said Ken McCraw, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools, which represents small and mid-sized school districts.
Amid broad agreement that “universal proficiency” is an unrealistic expectation, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has waived the requirements for states that applied for flexibility. Texas, however, refused to cede to Duncan’s conditions to get the waiver, because state leaders said the secretary was overstepping his authority.
Instead, Texas has pursued a different approach and asked federal officials to allow the state to use its own accountability system to satisfy the federal rules. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams met with Duncan last month to make the case for the waiver. No decision has been announced.
Citing ongoing negotiations with federal officials, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman declined to comment further on the waiver request. A U.S. Education Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy agenda, passed in 2001 with a provision that the law be revisited in 2007. But Congress still hasn’t taken action and competing proposals for revising the law suggest it isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“The conventional wisdom in Washington is ‘No way,’” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.
For Texas, that means that schools and districts — at least for now — remain subject to standards that federal officials acknowledge are fundamentally flawed.
The law fails to distinguish between schools that are serving almost all of their students well from those that are serving none of their students, said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank in Washington, D.C.
“Either you’re fine or you’re awful, and there’s nothing in between,” Finn said.
The result is that too many schools get dinged, so there is little focus on the schools that truly need improvement.
“It dilutes everything: money, human capacity, organizational capacity, even shame,” Finn said.
The complaints about No Child Left Behind are overblown, though the law does need an update, said Kerri Briggs, director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas and a former high-level official at the U.S. Education Department under Bush.
A school can still meet the standard if its passing rate falls short as long as it demonstrates significant annual improvement, Briggs said. Even if the school misses the mark, the effect in the early years is that some students get the benefit of tutoring and the option to transfer to other public schools.
The real tragedy, Briggs said, is that some students are leaving schools without being proficient in reading and math.
It’s unclear what the practical effect would be for the thousands of Texas public schools that bear the scarlet letter of failing to meet federal standards.
It takes several years of continued failure before a school could face the most serious sanctions, such as replacing teachers and principals or converting to a charter school. If the state opts to go soft on enforcement of the federal sanctions, the Education Department is not likely to cut federal dollars to Texas over a policy it is waiving all over the country, Finn said.
“It’s just a labeling issue,” Finn said. “It says, ‘In need of improvement.’”
But that label matters to teachers and school leaders, Ferguson said, because “it creates this idea that all schools stink, which is wrong.”
Federal math and reading requirements
For schools and districts to meet federal standards, a required percentage of all students must pass the state standardized tests. That threshold must also be met by each of the major student demographic groups, including African-American, Hispanic, white, economically disadvantaged, special education and limited-English proficiency students.
2012: Nearly half of Texas public schools failed to meet the federal standards for Adequate Yearly Progress, when 87 percent of students were required to pass reading and 83 percent in math.
2013: 93 percent of students in each school and district must pass reading, while 92 percent must pass math.
2014: 100 percent of students must pass in both subjects.