Compared to most states, California is performing abysmally when it comes to schools making "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
According to a new report from the Center on Education Policy, 61 percent of California schools failed to make adequate yearly progress. By comparison, a mere 5 percent of schools in Texas failed to do so.
But the disparities between California and other states actually say little about how well the the Golden State's schools are doing. Instead, they highlight a major deficiency in the law: It requires states to set their own standards for academic proficiency, as well as their own yearly targets, making state-to-state comparisons almost impossible.
"State tests are not comparable, period," said Marshall Smith, former dean of the School of Education at Stanford and senior counselor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan until last year. "You are a fool if you try to compare them."
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, said, "It is like comparing apples and oranges."
Because each state has its own standards and assessments, it is is also difficult to assess how the nation as a whole is doing on meeting the goals set by the No Child Left Behind law.
Only four other states had higher percentages than California of schools failing make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, as it is referred to in NCLB jargon. Eighty-six percent of Florida schools failed to reach their annual goals, as did 77 percent of schools in New Mexico, 71 percent in New Hampshire, and 64 percent in Missouri.
By contrast, Louisiana appears to be doing stunningly well, with only 12 percent of its schools failing to make adequate yearly progress. In Tennessee, only 22 percent failed to do so, as did 6 percent of Wisconsin schools.
The Center on Education Policy report listed a number of variables that could account for why one state may appear to be excelling, while another lags far behind:
Variations among states may be less a result of differences in educational quality, than in differences in test difficulty, cut scores defining proficiency on state tests, annual targets for the percentage of students scoring proficient, student demographics, and other factors. States in which a high percentage of schools did not make adequate yearly progress may have harder tests, higher cut scores or higher annual targets. These variations make it inadvisable to draw conclusions about student performance or educational quality.
Smith said that a far better measure of student achievement is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, administered to smaller samples of students across the country.
"It is the same test used across the country," he said. "It asks students to use their knowledge in ways they are not entirely accustomed to."
The No Child Left Behind legislation expects a fixed percentage of students to perform at a "proficient" level each year, but it is up to individual states to define proficiency, as well as to set annual proficiency targets. One uniform, and almost certainly unattainable, goal is that 100 percent of all students in every state are expected to reach a "proficient" level on their respective state tests by the 2013-14 school year.
As Congress remains stalled on approving legislation to replace the No Child Left Behind law, the current trend is clearly in the direction of developing a more uniform system of curriculum standards and assessment across the country. The "common core" curriculum adopted by California and 40 other states is expected to provide the foundation for such a system – and for the first time allow for more meaningful state-by-state comparisons.
"Common core will be the first step toward comparing how California does compared to the rest of the country," said Brownley.
One reason California may have ended up looking worse relative to some other states on No Child Left Behind measures is because it has maintained what many educators view as relatively high standards, refusing to lower them to meet the relentless demands of getting an ever-larger proportion of its students to perform at a "proficient" level.
That in turn has caused key lawmakers like Brownley to question the state's willingness to make the investments needed for schools to meet its own education goals.
"We have done a very good job setting rigorous standards," Brownley said. "But we have not followed through in making a good teaching force, and giving them all the tools they need to succeed, including smaller classrooms and the right kinds of professional development."