States Test Limits of Federal AYP Flexibility

Naomi Chudowsky and Victor Chudowsky
Center on Education Policy
November 2005

Lowering standards and making tests easier aren't the only ways that states might seek to shield schools from the sunlight and sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act (see here and here). They can also finagle their definitions of "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) and, according to this report  released last month by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), such sleight-of-hand is rampant. The report explains, in refreshingly clear language, how each state must create an AYP formula that, at its heart, delineates what proportion of a school's students (and subgroups) must reach the "proficient" level each year in order to stay off the "schools in need of improvement" list. By 2014, that proportion must rise to 100 percent. Early on, some states found ways to game this system. For example, several used the "balloon mortgage" approach to set their timelines, thereby delaying dramatic gains in achievement to as late a date as possible (see here). But states have since become even more creative. Forty-six of them now use a "confidence interval," which CEP defines as "a margin of error that creates a certain amount of 'wiggle room' around the test results...and makes it easier for a school to demonstrate AYP." Twenty-three states increased their "minimum subgroup sizes" in 2004 or 2005, making it more likely that subgroup scores - including those for African-American or Latino youngsters - won't count within the AYP determination. (See here for the most egregious example of this.) Twelve states now use some sort of performance index that gives partial credit to schools even if their students don't reach the proficient level - a precursor to the Secretary's "growth model" pilot program (see here). And now, 11 states allow scores from retests (especially for high school students taking graduation exams more than once) to count for AYP purposes. No doubt each of these approaches can be defended on technical or policy grounds, and CEP is careful not to pass judgment in toto against these methods. Indeed, it saves its sharpest criticism for the Department of Education for lack of timeliness and transparency in responding to state requests for approval for changes to their accountability plans. (To the Department's credit, it is becoming somewhat more transparent; see here, here, and here for details on recent policy decisions.) Still, the larger picture painted is one of state obfuscation and dizzying complexity - attributes that spell trouble for standards-based reform. Do we need any more evidence that most state policymakers are destined to bend to political pressure rather than stand up for high expectations and rigorous accountability? Judge for yourself; see the report here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.