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April 18, 2006
Left Behind

The centerpiece of the Bush administration's domestic policy in the first term was the No Child Left Behind Act, which headlined a large-scale budget increase for the Department of Education and drew Ted Kennedy into a coalition with George Bush. The program aimed to ensure accountabilty from schools based on student performance and forced a testing regime that would uncover poorly-performing districts and target them for improvement or serious change. The AP reported last night that this system has been undermined by deliberate underreporting of tests taken by the very students it meant to protect:

States are helping public schools escape potential penalties by skirting the No Child Left Behind law's requirement that students of all races must show annual academic progress.

With the federal government's permission, schools deliberately aren't counting the test scores of nearly 2 million students when they report progress by racial groups, an Associated Press computer analysis found.

Minorities — who historically haven't fared as well as whites in testing — make up the vast majority of students whose scores are being excluded, AP found. And the numbers have been rising. ...

To calculate a nationwide estimate, AP analyzed the 2003-04 enrollment figures the government collected — the latest on record — and applied the current racial category exemptions the states use.

Overall, AP found that about 1.9 million students — or about 1 in every 14 test scores — aren't being counted under the law's racial categories. Minorities are seven times as likely to have their scores excluded as whites, the analysis showed.

The exemptions started from a concern that schools with very small numbers of students in minority categories would have problems when calculating the statistical failure rate for those groups. One failure in a group of five, for example, would give a school a 20% failure rate in a system that assigns the lowest category rating as the school's ultimate measurement. For those students, their test scores count in the general population but the schools are not required to report in the underrepresented categories.

This makes sense -- to a point. However, schools and states have taken advantage of this leeway, unofficially granted by the Department of Education, to eliminate reporting for a large number of students in order to save their schools from being held accountable for their poor performance. Oklahoma sets the threshold per school for minority reporting at 52 students per category, a ridiculously high number. One failing student in a group of fifty-two would not present an undue statistical anomaly, and it effectively keeps Oklahoma schools from reporting on almost all minority performance in education. Missouri set its threshold at thirty students per category. Most states have readjusted their category thresholds higher each year since the inception of the program.

What has been the result? Huge swaths of student tests never get reported in demographic categories, evading the entire intent of NCLB. Missouri gets to omit 24,000 students. Texas has no reporting statewide for Asians -- 65,000 of them -- or native Americans, leading to over a quarter-million students left off the rolls; neither does Arkansas. California has 400,000 students exempted from the demographic reporting process.

The schools and their administrators benefit from gaming the system in this manner. They avoid getting labeled as a failing school, even though the intent of Congress and the President clearly had the performance of minority students in mind when the system was passed and signed into law. Bush had made the "soft bigotry of low expectations" a rallying cry for accountability for these students, and the entire concept of not leaving any students behind supposedly focused on ensuring that minority students received the kind of education that would lift their socioeconomic potential.

The DoE needs to crack down on the self-assigned exemptions that states and school districts use as a dodge from accountability. We absorbed a huge expansion of the federal reach into education and a 57% increase in federal spending on the promise that schools would have to show better performance in all categories or face sanctions. When states can simply wipe hundreds of thousands of children off the books in this manner, accountability is the concept that gets left behind.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 18, 2006 4:54 AM

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