Let's leave the worst parts of NCLB behind

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It turns out this adage applies not just to global politics, but also to state education policies, and groups on both the left and the right should take heed.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is among the most lamented education policies in recent memory, and few of NCLB’s provisions received as much scorn as its singular focus on grade-level proficiency as the sole measure of school performance. Researchers and practitioners alike faulted the fetishizing of proficiency for things like:

  • Encouraging schools to focus their attention on students close to the proficiency cut (the “bubble kids”) as opposed to all students, including high- and low-achievers.
  • Incentivizing states to lower their definitions of “proficiency” over time.
  • Resulting in unreliable ratings of school performance that were highly sensitive to the cut scores chosen.
  • Misrepresenting both school “effectiveness” (since proficiency is so highly correlated with student characteristics) and “achievement gaps” (since the magnitude of gaps again depends tremendously on where the proficiency cut is set).
  • Throwing away vast quantities of useful information by essentially turning every child into a 1 (proficient) or a 0 (not).

(For more details on these criticisms and links to relevant research, see my previous writing on this topic.)

With some prodding from interested researchers and policy advocates, the Department of Education is allowing states to rectify this situation. Specifically, states now are permitted to use measures other than “percent proficient” for their measure of academic achievement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In previous posts, I recommended that the feds allow the use of performance indexes and average scale scores; performance indexes are now specifically allowed under the peer-review guidance the Department published a few weeks ago.

Despite this newfound flexibility, of the seventeen states with draft ESSA accountability plans, the Fordham Institute finds only seven have moved away from percent proficient as their main measure of academic achievement. In fact, the Foundation for Excellence in Education is encouraging states to stay the course with percent proficient, arguing that it is an indicator that students will be on track for college or career success. While I agree with them that proficiency for an individual student is not a useless measure, it is an awful measure for evaluating whole schools.

Sticking with percent proficient is a terrible mistake that will doom states to many of the same issues they had under NCLB. I implore states that are still finalizing their ESSA accountability systems to learn from the past and choose better measures of school performance. Specifically, I make the following two recommendations:

  • No state should use “percent proficient” as a measure of academic achievement; all should use a performance index with a minimum of four levels for their status-based performance measures. The more levels in the index, the better it will be at accurately representing the average achievement of students in the school. States can continue reporting percent proficient on the side if compelled.
  • States should place as much emphasis as possible on measures of student growth to draw as much attention as possible to schools that are most in need of improvement. Growth measures at least attempt to estimate the actual impact of schools on students; status measures do not. From among the array of growth measures, I recommend true value-added models or student growth percentiles (though I prefer value-added models for reasons described here). These are much better choices than “growth-to-proficiency” models, which do not estimate the impact of schools and again mostly measure who is enrolled.

While both EdTrust and the Foundation for Excellence in Education recommend growth-to-proficiency measures, again, these are perhaps acceptable for individual students, but as measures of school performance there is no question these are not growth measures that approximate schools’ impacts.

Overall, the evidence on these issues is overwhelming. Educators and policymakers have complained about NCLB and “percent proficient” for as long as the policy has existed. With this evidence, and with the newfound flexibility under ESSA, there is no reason for any state to continue using percent proficient as a measure of school performance. Doing so in spite of our past experience all but ensures that many of NCLB’s worst problems will persist through the ESSA era.

Morgan Polikoff is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said that only six states have moved away from percent proficient as their main measure of academic achievement. That has since been updated to seven states, after Arizona did so on Monday, April 26.