Do Loudoun Schools Leave Any Child Behind?

Last week, it was reported that for the first time in three years, the Loudoun County Public Schools failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” in student achievement. AYP is the standard prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act for measuring school quality.

The results of Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests for 2010 are in, and Loudoun County Public Schools students posted an increase in scores across the board, however the school system did not make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The school system was not alone, as 91 percent of all school districts in the state failed to make AYP under the federal guidelines. Only 12 districts across the state reached that achievement, down from 60 in the previous year. LCPS attained AYP in both 2008 and 2009.

Loudoun students passed the English and mathematics portion of the tests at rates of 94 and 91 percent, respectively. In total, 66 percent of Loudoun’s schools made AYP.

AYP is measured by the test scores of 29 different ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups, and in 2010 the tests were measured for every grade from third through eighth, and as final course tests in high school.

Altogether there were more than 2,100 test cells in LCPS, of which only 63, or 2.94 percent, were deemed as not making AYP. – Leesburg Today

Said another way, 97.06 percent of Loudoun’s measured student cohorts passed the standards of learning. That’s an A by most standards. Not however, by the standards of No Child Left Behind. A test which the vast majority fails says more about the test than the people taking it. Tests need to be scaled to measure actionable differences in performance, and the testing results that No Child Left Behind reports provide none of those. All that we hear is that “Loudoun’s Schools Fail” and we are left with the impression that our rather incredible school system is a boondoggle.

No Child Left Behind is not designed to help student achievement, but to undermine the very idea of public education over the long term. It was designed, in fact, to get to the point where no public school could pass, and therefore serve as a false indictment of public education as a whole.  No Child Left Behind was passed with great fanfare in 2002. Since then, it has ratcheted up the standard, and pressure, for schools to be considered “of quality.” In every year, like some kind of educational Moore’s Law, every school is expected to improve the performance of every student as measured by state-mandated tests. In a perverse flipping of incentives, this has led to widespread cheating on the relevant test not by the students, but by the schools themselves! The image to the right is of test papers with identical answers from the Norfolk public schools. That kind of cheating is generally impossible without the consent, if not direct assistance, of the teacher and school.

There are other examples.

At Richmond’s Oak Grove Elementary School, investigators found the principal had directed teachers to fill in students’ answer sheets, often changing wrong responses.

At Accomack County’s Nandua High School, teachers received copied test booklets containing questions that hadn’t yet been retired from use on SOL exams.

Both divisions brought actions against the principals’ teaching licenses, and the state board suspended their administration endorsements in 2006. The former Oak Grove principal will be able to regain hers in 2011.

The only other time the state board took such action was in 2007, when a Carroll County teacher voluntarily surrendered her license after, among other things, allegedly giving students a “thumbs up” sign when they marked correct answers.

In September 2005, the board unanimously voted to withhold accreditation from the Richmond school and the Accomack school for the 2005-06 year. It is the only time the board has done so for a full year.

The state board’s powers to withhold accreditation for testing violations and to initiate investigations into testing problems were written into state codes in 2006.

Two years later, the board approved a policy allowing the state to withhold or deny a school’s ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law until corrective actions are taken.

State Superintendent Wright said that when it comes to licensure, the state board depends on school divisions to compile evidence of an educator’s wrongdoing.

“It is not as simple as me saying, ‘OK, the teacher violated the test security, so I’m going to recommend to the board that they revoke the license,’ ” she said.

The other laws aren’t intended to penalize, Wright said. –

So No Child Left Behind creates incentives for schools to cheat. This undermines the essential mission of the schools while, at the same time purporting to validate that mission. And in creating impossible standards that can only be failed or passed by cheating the very idea of public education itself can be called into question. It’s a wonderfully neat little conservative trick.

Of course, that trick did not fool the people actually involved in schools directly. Teachers, students and many parents have opposed make-or-break testing as a part of No Child Left Behind from the beginning. Of course, no one wants to listen to teachers, students and parents. After all, it’s not like there are teachers, parents or students in Congress. No, seriously. No one in Congress is a student, very few members of Congress even have small children (a point that Krystal Ball makes in her campaign to serve the citizens of VA-01), and you can bet that very few of their children attend public schools.

Under these circumstances, it is remarkable that lawmakers feel they have the expertise to legislate such things as mandatory, annual, escalating testing requirements in the face of fierce opposition by people on the ground in education. It isn’t like other industries are regulated with as much fiat. Compared with what No Child Left Behind did to public education, what the Health Care Reform act or the Financial Reform act did was peanuts for those industries.

Perhaps that’s because there is no “public education” industry, in the sense of an economic organization that generates profit that can then be used to influence policy. Unlike, say, the private education industry, which has benefited mightily from the image of “failing public schools.” It is interesting, if not suspicious, that so much public money has flowed from public schools that have “failed” according to NCLB standards to private (and in some cases, charter) schools that do not have to be measured by the same standards as public schools.

After all, all private and many charter schools can self-select their student populations. Public schools cannot. Public education is a right, private (and charter) education, is not. It is much easier to pass a subjective test if you get to pick and choose the students who take it. Private schools are essentially allowed to pick the students most likely to pass to attend their classes, and viola, they “succeed.” But there’s a funny thing when that happens, the students who did not get the chance to attend the private or charter school, for reasons of money, maturity, or geography are left behind.

No Child Left Behind is designed to leave the kids that need the most help behind!

Even in a system designed to demonstrate failure, we will be remiss if we do not think of the kids who did not not make Adequate Yearly Progress. The kids who “failed.” National policy has individual consequences. For all its serious flaws, No Child Left Behind put in place a mechanism, testing, for identifying the kids who need the most help. It is one thing to use a test to identify a baseline of achievement from which to progress. It is another thing entirely to use a test to declare an entire school a failure.

In Loudoun, for those 63 cells of students that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, Loudoun’s schools did fail. For any number of reasons, those students did not improve their critical skills sufficiently year-to-year. We will all benefit if those students can see their achievement improve next year. However, we must ask ourselves what the cost of that fix will be, and whether we are willing to pay it.

I strongly believe in public education. Without it, my worldview would be narrower and my life more full of ignorance. I, for one, am willing to pay more for schools and for the resources necessary to advance the 2.94% who were left behind, but are others? What if it will cost Loudoun an additional 30% in school funding to reduce that fail rate to 1%? Are we willing to pay that? Are we willing to raise our property taxes or cut money from parks and police to narrow that gap?

And if the answer is “no” then what is the failure of Adequate Yearly Progress actually measuring? Is it measuring the effectiveness of schools who have to compete for limited resources in the worst governmental budget cycle in a generation? Or is it measuring the political will of the electorate? Is it measuring our willingness to say “97.04% is enough.” And if that is the case, why should our schools be labeled as failing, when they have done everything that we, the public, have asked of them given the limits that we, the public, have placed on them?

Just like a student who gets an answer wrong and still gets an A, the A does not mean that the questions that student got wrong were any less wrong, it just means they got a hell of a lot more questions right. So, too, with Loudoun’s schools, where the teachers and students get a hell of a lot more right than wrong, and that should be the headline.  

2 thoughts on “Do Loudoun Schools Leave Any Child Behind?

  1. Liz Miller

    Once you get above 97% of a population, you’re as close as you’re going to get to 100%. If the requirement is that 100% of the population pass the test, then you’re right, that requirement will not get met.

    Did you know that there is also a requirement that any child who has been in the public school system for over a year also take the tests (and pass them) in English? So kids who may only speak, say, Yiddish, at home (like my father’s three older brothers did until the eldest went to school) had better get mighty fluent mighty fast.

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