With the 2007 reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) fast approaching, it's worth asking the question: How meaningful is the "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) measure that is at the heart of the legislation? How much should parents pay attention to whether their school is making AYP?
Two scholars have published an interesting piece in the Fall issue of Education Next which suggests that AYP is not very accurate or meaningful. They compared the Federal AYP designation to Florida's A-F accountability system and concluded that the Florida system is much better at identifying schools where students learn more, and also identifying schools that are truly bad.
Before exploring this issue further, a few words of background: to make AYP, a school needs to reach a certain threshold — set by the state — of students meeting the "proficient" standard on a state test. The state has to set targets that increase each year until 100% of students are "proficient" in 2014.
In contrast, Florida's A-F school accountability system is based partly on absolute test scores (the percentage of students who achieved certain levels of proficiency), but also partly on student year-to-year growth in test scores.
The authors of the Education Next piece, Paul Peterson of Harvard University and Martin West of Brown University, found that schools that did not make AYP demonstrated almost the same level of learning gains as did schools that made AYP. The authors write:
Because NCLB (evaluates) schools...primarily on the basis of achievement levels, the evaluation cannot readily detect how much growth is taking place within a school, simply because children come with dramatically different educational endowments. The correlation between school average levels and growth in the 2003–04 school year was just 0.63 in math and 0.71 in reading—a positive relationship, to be sure, but hardly one on which to construct a meaningful accountability system.
Peterson and West raise great questions: Should a federal accountability system be based at least partly on student learning gains? And how can we avoid the confusion that inevitably results when you have dual federal and state accountability systems? How can we improve NCLB when it is reauthorized?