No Child Left Behind creates challenges

No Child Left Behind is still in effect in Iowa, and for the 2013-2014 year required school districts to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math.

However, not attaining 100 percent proficiency does not automatically condemn a district to “school in need of assistance” status.

According to Stacey Cole, Fort Dodge Community School District director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, there are “safe harbor” tools.

“They look at different things. One of them is a growth model,” she said. “If a certain amount of kids make a certain amount of growth, then you enter ‘safe harbor’ due to that.”

Fort Dodge schools achieve about 70 percent proficiency on the Iowa Assessments standardized test.

“We’re just below the state average,” Cole said. “We tend to be about 5 to 10 percent less of our students who are proficient than the state.”

Staci Hupp, Iowa Department of Education director of communications, said Iowa must continue to follow No Child Left Behind until the law is reauthorized by the state Legislature or the state receives a waiver from some components of the law.

Iowa applied for a waiver from NCLB in 2012, but was denied.

“Our application was commended by the U.S. Department of Education, but approval wasn’t possible, and that’s because in Iowa we, as a state, don’t meet waiver requirements relating to educator evaluations,” Hupp said. “Our system in Iowa is not in line with what the waiver requires, and that would need to be changed by the state Legislature.”

As a result, Hupp anticipates more schools will be labeled “in need of assistance” under NCLB for not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress requirements.

“They have to meet annual benchmarks for No Child Left Behind based on test score performance and participation, and so any school that does not meet Adequate Yearly Progress for two years in a row is labeled ‘in need of assistance’ under NCLB,” she said.

The sanctions that follow can have a negative impact on a school.

“There are consequences for schools receiving Title-I money, and the consequences vary depending on how long a school or district has been on a list,” Hupp said.

When a school does not meet NCLB proficiency requirements it is labeled a “failing school.” The opposite, Cole said, is usually closer to the truth, though.

“Many times schools that are ‘failing’ are actually implementing much better practices based on what we know now about how the brain learns than some of our blue-ribbon schools,” she said. “I have seen many schools that are on the ‘schools in need of assistance’ list that are using practices that are much better to be using in schools. Their demographics, though, are more challenging.”

NCLB scores are affected by performances in subgroups including race, free or reduced lunch status, or being on an individual education plan. Students in these subgroups often face challenges such as not being able to have breakfast before school or having an unstable home environment, Cole said.

“The challenge is really, how do we help kids overcome these barriers?” she said. “I think we’re going to get better if we stop blaming kids and we stop blaming parents and we stop blaming teachers. We need to work together to create a system that will help all kids achieve.”

There are benefits to NCLB. The law, Cole said, has cast a spotlight on what happens when students enter special education.

“What happens is, they start off and they’re behind their peers. The longer kids nationwide are in special education, the further away from their peers they get,” she said. “If the help makes them further behind their peers, is that the help they need? I don’t think we looked at that prior to NCLB. There’s some value in really looking at how our systems serve all kids.”

She added, “I do think prior to its release, we probably didn’t have our eye on certain subgroups of populations.”

According to Hupp, while NCLB has encouraged accountability, high expectations and continual improvement among school districts, the law itself is flawed.

“No Child Left Behind, in its current form, won’t drive us toward better outcomes for kids,” she said. “It doesn’t, as a law, recognize that students come to school at different starting points, and it doesn’t recognize the strides schools make with students. We believe it unfairly targets schools that serve more disadvantaged students.”

The FDCSD, Cole said, will continue to use assessment data to improve the quality of education in the district.

“As a system we want to look at those scores to say, how does our system meet the needs of kids? If we hover around the 70th percentile … we can make the statement that our system is set up to support about 70 percent of our kids,” she said. “We just need to now think about, how do we set up a system that meets the needs of 75 percent of our kids?”