Underscoring the unworkability of California's current school "accountability" system, test scores at California schools are going up, at the same time as the number of failing schools as defined by the federal government are going up dramatically as well.
The number of schools in need of "program improvement" – those schools labeled as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act – has now soared to 3,197 schools, out of some 6,142 which are rated under the law. This includes 567 schools that have been designated "program improvement schools" for the first time.
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The reason is because the No Child Left Behind law has set what virtually every education expert admits is an unattainable target: requiring that 100 percent of students score at a proficient level on state tests by the 2013-2014 school year. Each year the federal government is ratcheting up the percentage of students that must be proficient in math and English in order to escape the dreaded, and somewhat Orwellian, "program improvement" label.
That means for the first time more than 50 percent of schools receiving federal Title 1 funds targeted at low-income children are now labeled as failing.
Depending on how long they remain a "PI" school, they are on a track for all kinds of sanctions, including being shut down and reopened as a charter school, having their staff and principal replaced, or being taken over by an outside organization.
The targets vary depending on the grade level. For example, for elementary and middle schools and districts to avoid being labeled as failing, 68.5 percent of students will have to score at a proficient level in math during the current (2010-11) school year; 79 percent will have to be proficient in 2011-12; 89.5 percent will have to be proficient in 2012-13; and 100 percent will have to be proficient in 2013-14. (For targets for other grade levels, check out page 22 of this California Department of Education report [PDF]).
The reason that test scores are going up at more schools, as measured by a school's Academic Performance Index, while the number of "failing" schools is also going up, is because of totally conflicting state and federal accountability systems.
As Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell explained yesterday, the state accountability system is like a long jump, where schools are measured on whether they improve their scores from the previous year.
By contrast, the federal accountability system is like the high jump: The bar is raised each year, and schools that fail to make it over the bar are labeled as failing. By 2013, 100 percent of schools in California serving low-income children will be labeled as failing, because the bar has been raised so high that it is unlikely any school will be able to clear it, even those performing at world record levels.
The No Child Left Behind law, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, could be amended, as it is now up for reauthorization. For now, however, neither Congress nor the Obama administration seems in any hurry to do so, and the formula that inexorably labels more and more schools as failing is still firmly in place.