President Bush likes to say diversity is America’s greatest strength. But when it comes to schools seeking a passing grade under the landmark education law he championed, a diverse student body can be a school district’s greatest liability, according to a study released by Berkeley-based Policy Analysis for California Education.
“Washington policy makers are earnestly trying to identify mediocre schools,” said study co-author John Novak, a statistician at the University of Southern California. “Yet, we discovered hundreds of middle-class schools that the feds began to penalize this fall, schools that are only guilty of enrolling diverse children.”
The study found that schools with multiple student subgroups are more likely to trigger the minefield of sanctions buried in the 2002 No Child Left Behind law—even though their students scored about as well on standardized tests as students in less diverse schools.
This year, three-fourths of Berkeley schools and nearly half of all California schools failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) mandated by the law, potentially triggering a series of penalties under the Bush legislation.
No Child Left Behind requires California schools to test 95 percent of their students and show that 16 percent of students test proficient in math and 13.6 percent in reading. Standards must rise incrementally until all students are required to achieve proficiency by 2014.
Additionally, all statistically significant subgroups—including ethnic and racial groups, English-learners, the socio-economically disadvantaged, and learning disabled—must meet federal standards. If any statistically significant group—tallied as 15 percent of a school’s population—fails, the school as a whole fails.
Under these criteria, 12 of Berkeley’s 16 schools failed to make AYP this year. All but one of the schools—Rosa Parks—met performance goals, but they fell short on the 95 percent participation requirement. State law allows parents to opt out of standardized tests, making the quota tough to meet.
Though Berkeley wasn’t included in the study, local results among elementary schools support the researchers’ findings.
Of four Berkeley schools that count five statistically significant subgroups—White, African American, Latino, English Learner and Socio-economic Disadvantaged—three, Washington, Cragmont and Rosa Parks, have been labeled failing under No Child Left Behind. None of the six schools that count either two or three subgroups have yet faced federal sanctions.
Designed to raise achievement levels for all students, especially those belonging to ethnic groups that have traditionally lagged on standardized tests, the law has unintentionally directed its bevy of stigmatizing penalties at schools serving the populations lawmakers are trying to help, the study concludes.
Among schools that enroll fewer than 25 percent of students from poor families, 80 percent of schools with two subgroups met their AYP, compared to 53 percent for schools with six subgroups. Poor students were defined as qualifying for federal Title 1 money—roughly a family income of $24,000.
Among poorer schools where between 50 and 75 percent of students are disadvantaged, 74 percent of schools with two subgroups met AYP, compared to 21 percent for schools with six subgroups.
Even more damning, standardized test scores among schools in the same economic bracket are nearly identical—even though diverse schools face longer odds in meeting federal standards. For schools with between 50 to 75 percent of their students disadvantaged, the odds of meeting their AYP dropped by 16 percent between schools with three versus five subgroups—even though their cumulative scores were equal.
“Good intentions have gone awry,” said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy and co-author of the study. “It’s simply more difficult to flip a silver dollar and get three tails in a row than to get one.”
Adding to the confusion, Fuller said, is that California measures school performance based on annual standardized test performance growth, not benchmarks. Of the roughly 3,000 California schools that failed to make AYP this year, Fuller said, just under 2,100 of the schools received passing grades under the state standards.
“A lot of principals feel cynical towards the federal system, because it gives them a contradictory message,” Fuller said.
In Berkeley, for instance, academic performance at Washington Elementary has improved 40 basis points since 2000—from 689 to 729 according to state calculations. However, the school was labeled failing under No Child Left Behind after low-income students failed to meet goals for two years followed by the school failing to hit the 95 percent test attendance benchmark this year.
Now in year two of program improvement required under federal law, not only must Washington Elementary inform parents about its status and offer them a chance to transfer, but they must divert much of their Title 1 money to provide extra academic tutoring. Penalties increase through year five, when the district would have to change the governance of the school.
Fuller criticized the federal government’s “all stick and no carrot” approach. “The question is, are the feds just stigmatizing schools that have more subgroups even though they are equally effective?”
He recommended rewarding schools that show overall progress, while noting when some subgroups fail to meet standards. He also urged state education boards to lobby for permission to devise their own methods for closing achievement gaps, including a simpler set of student subgroups.
Fuller noted that schools with high concentrations of Latino students often suffer a triple whammy because many Latino students are simultaneously counted as Latino, English-learners, and socio-economically disadvantaged.
“We’re not questioning the Bush administration’s admirable goals,” he said. “But our findings do suggest that the new federal rules are yielding unintended and demoralizing effects inside many local schools.”