Kids Who Need Help Don't Get it Under No Child Left Behind Law
James Walsh, Minnesota Star Tribune
March 13, 2005
The No Child Left Behind law makes ambitious promises to hold all schools accountable for student achievement and to raise all children to their grade levels in reading and math. But the law's loopholes allow hundreds of schools and more than 82,000 struggling Minnesota students to slip through untouched, a Star Tribune analysis has found.
In all, nearly 10 percent of Minnesota's students last year -- and 83 percent of all the students who scored poorly on state tests -- were overlooked by the law.
The law is beginning its fourth year. But even when it is fully implemented in 2014, more than half of Minnesota's students could fail and still receive scant attention from No Child Left Behind.
That's because the law focuses only on schools it labels "underperforming" -- that is, schools where students don't improve enough on standardized tests.
Of those underperforming schools, the law imposes consequences only on the schools that receive federal funding for students living in poverty.
Schools that are not on the underperforming list might have many students who don't score at grade level on tests. But if enough of their students do well, the school escapes any consequences of the law and those kids get no extra help.
And schools that are on the underperforming list but don't receive the federal money also receive no consequences from the law, other than the embarrassment of being placed on the list. Even in 2014, those schools' underperforming students will get no help.
What this means is that a vast majority of underperforming students are not currently helped by No Child Left Behind and won't be for years to come, if ever. Out of the 98,556 Minnesota students who scored below grade level in reading or math on the 2004 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, 82,140 got no help from the law. Just 16,416 of the 98,556 struggling students went to schools that receive the most scrutiny under the law.
The Star Tribune's analysis has found six ways in which struggling students are overlooked:
• Their school never makes the underperforming list. Last year, nearly 1,600 Minnesota schools were not on the list. At those schools, 54,415 students scored below grade level, but because the schools aren't on the list, they'll get no extra help. Avoiding the list hasn't been that hard. Until this year, nearly 35 percent of students could fail statewide tests and their school would still be considered adequate. The law requires higher passing rates over time, but it still will be many years before the law will require most schools to address their underperforming students.
• Their school doesn't have enough poor kids. Another 27,725 children who scored below grade level last year attended schools that were on the list but did not receive the Title I money meant to help low-income students. The remedies of No Child Left Behind -- allowing students to leave failing schools, requiring that money be set aside for tutoring and even the potential restructuring or closure of failing schools -- apply only to Title I schools. Out of the 481 schools that were on the list in Minnesota in 2004, 283 were not Title I. Overall, only about 40 percent of U.S. schools are Title I.
• There aren't enough special-needs or minority kids to count. The law judges schools by the achievement of smaller groups of students, based on race and ethnicity, special needs or income. But states can decide if there are enough students to warrant counting in a particular group. In Minnesota, schools must have at least 20 students in any minority group tested for their scores to count; there must be at least 40 special-education or children learning English for their scores to count.
• Wiggle room can keep a school off the list. States can set their passing scores very low to begin with, making it appear that more kids are doing well and protecting schools from penalties. The law also lets states adjust those goals even lower if they have more minority or special-needs students. That makes it even easier for schools to stay off the list and results in more children failing without the law taking notice.
• Someone else is getting the help. When the law requires a school to provide extra services, such as tutoring, the services don't necessarily go to the lowest-scoring kids. Those services go to kids based on poverty, not on test scores.
• Changes are likely to make more kids go uncounted in the future. While every child is supposed to do well by 2014, the law comes up for congressional reauthorization in 2007. Already Minnesota and other states are demanding more flexibility -- flexibility that will keep more schools off the list. Many local education officials suspect that No Child Left Behind will never require every child to do well.
State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren agrees that the law doesn't pay attention to thousands of struggling Minnesota students. But, she said, she believes that will change as people learn more -- and expect more -- from their schools.
"That's the next level of discussion," she said. "The public is not going to let us off the hook. The public is going to demand it. I think the fact that you're raising the issue is good. We need to have this hard discussion, and we will."
Bob Brick of the PACER Center, a Minnesota advocacy group for students with disabilities, lamented that so many struggling students are being overlooked.
"It's very disappointing that the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind doesn't match the reality," he said. "If we've created a significantly sized loophole, so that not only students with disabilities but those who have limited English proficiency or other minority populations are being systematically excluded from having their test scores released, I think it's a very sad state of affairs for Minnesota education."
James Walsh is at firstname.lastname@example.org