Tar Heel Schools Tank

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

Traditional North Carolina public schools will open their doors next week under mounting pressure to perform. Last Friday, the Department of Public Instruction released Preliminary 2007 Results of Average Yearly Progress (AYP) for each school in the state, and the news wasn’t good: this past year, more and more schools failed to measure up to federal requirements. In both Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg (.pdf) systems, less than half of elementary and middle schools met AYP guidelines; only 13 percent of Durham County schools (six out of 45) passed.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, states must report accountability results school by school; schools must then disaggregate data into 10 different subgroups of students. In order to make AYP, each subgroup must meet target goals set by our state’s Department of Public Instruction. Every three years, goals increase, culminating with the target of having 100 percent of students at grade-level proficiency by 2014.

Just how far away are we from attaining universal proficiency? A long, long way: what many people may not realize is that goals for this year, unmet by scores of state schools, weren’t even all that high. To reach AYP targets (.pdf) for 2006-07, schools had to show that 76.7 percent of third- through eighth-grade students in each subgroup scored at proficient levels in reading, and 65.8 percent of students were proficient in math. High schools meeting AYP needed to have only 35.4 percent of students in subgroups proficient in reading/language arts, and 70.8 percent proficient in math. With target goals set to increase in 2007-08 and schools on a
downward slide, expect an outcry for change when NCLB’s reauthorization rolls around this year.

It’s worth noting, too, that consequences for not making AYP apply ONLY to Title I schools (those schools with higher concentrations of poor students). Penalties come only after schools fail to make AYP for two consecutive years in the same subject. At that point, schools must offer parents transfer options to other public schools within the system; after three years in a row, students in failing schools are eligible for special tutoring services at no charge. Seven
switched these options
due to the fact North Carolina was chosen by the US Department of Education as a pilot site for changes. No matter the sequence, the options represent a step toward greater accountability, but school systems are not always forthcoming and programs remain limited.

While educators and parents should be concerned about our widespread failure to make AYP, they should also look to the assessment tools themselves, the End-of-Grade (EOG) and End-of-Course (EOC) tests. Measuring whether schools meet or miss AYP proficiency goals is a worthy task, but it doesn’t amount to much if the tests themselves are unreliable and lacking in rigor. This is clearly the case in our state: increasingly, North Carolina is coming under fire for having easy tests and lax academic standards.

What’s the remedy for our inadequate yearly progress? While many reforms are warranted, we ought to start by implementing better, more reliable achievement tests. Sure, our current accountability system churns out lots of data, but flawed measurement tools don’t really tell us whether students are proficient or not. If we ever expect to close achievement gaps and attain full-scale proficiency, we need to know what kids know. Without that, we will forever be, in the words of Yale University librarian Rutherford Rogers, “drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.