Examining Kentucky's No Child Left Behind Tier 5 Schools

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Executive summary

Click here to view the entire report

Since its passage in late 2001, the “ No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLB) has generated a huge amount of criticism from Kentucky’s professional educators. Critics say the act’s required academic targets are too high, especially for students with learning disabilities, and they have repeatedly said students face an impossible standard.

But is the criticism valid? And what does the data show for those schools identified by the law as Kentucky’s weakest performers?

To answer those questions, the Bluegrass Institute examined some of the facts and data concerning Kentucky’s weakest “No Child” performers – the 34 schools that ended 2008 in Tier 5, the lowest “No Child” performance category. This analysis contradicts some common beliefs about the law’s impact in Kentucky.

First, because of loopholes in “No Child,” no school in Kentucky will have to ever post a 100-percent proficiency rate for any student group, not even in 2014, the endpoint year for the law. Loopholes give schools credit for a 100-percent performance when the actual proficiency rate might only be half that. Other loopholes set unreasonably high minimum-student thresholds before scores need to be reported for student subgroups. These rules allow schools to completely escape accountability for many student subgroups.

As a consequence of loopholes and because at the outset of “No Child” Kentucky set very low proficiency-rate targets for schools to meet, only exceptionally low-performing schools can possibly be in Tier 5 status today. Nevertheless, at the close of 2008, 34 Kentucky schools fell into Tier 5 status after failing to make “No Child” targets during at least a six-year period. Counter to what some believe, the present failures in these schools have nothing to do with the future requirements for high proficiency rates in 2014. These schools failed to clear very low hurdles from the very beginning of “No Child.”

This report also addresses another common complaint by finding that the performance of students with learning disabilities is clearly not the only reason for “No Child” failure – at least not among Kentucky’s Tier 5 schools. Of the 34 “No Child” Tier 5 schools in Kentucky, 29 failed student groups other than the learning disabled. After learning-disabled students, the worst served student groups are Kentucky’s black students, followed by students from low-income households.

One of the report’s more disturbing findings is that the majority of Kentucky’s 34 “No Child” Tier 5 schools were not identified as problematic by the state’s own assessment, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS). This is because the CATS accountability program totally ignores differences in performance among student subgroups. Thus, by itself, CATS left many students behind.

Furthermore, the CATS system directs state-funded assistance to schools with serious problems. However, because CATS didn’t identify them, most of Kentucky’s Tier 5 schools received none of this CATS-directed help.

Fortunately, CATS is now being phased out and there is a growing awareness among Kentucky’s policymakers that the replacement needs to include a focus on gaps. This will hopefully result in better direction of funds and other resources that target remediation of education deficiencies.

That leads us to wonder: What sort of help do Kentucky’s Tier 5 schools receive because they fail to meet “No Child” standards? Some of the answers revealed in this study are extremely disappointing.

Despite extensive information published in official documents from the Kentucky Department of Education, which say that the state’s Tier 5 schools will implement “Alternative Governance” policies, these plans do not exist. Instead, schools only are impacted by something referred to as “Restructuring” plans, which really don’t achieve any restructuring.

We found no indications in documents provided by the Kentucky Department of Education of any intent to restructure the governance in schools through replacement or modification of either professional staffing or the School Based Decision Making Councils, which are the key governance structures in Kentucky schools.

These restructuring plans do not offer Tier 5 schools what “No Child” requires, which under the rules pertaining to Kentucky includes, “fundamental reforms, such as significant changes in the school’s staffing and governance, to improve student academic achievement in the school and that has substantial promise of enabling the school to make adequate yearly progress as defined in the State plan.”1

This study finds nothing “fundamental” and “significant” in any of the “Restructuring” plans.

Current strategies offered by Tier 5 schools consist mostly of proposals to provide more professional development for existing staff. Principals in Tier 5 schools will get more training – of sorts – and teachers might get a bit more professional development. A principal might get a retired principal as an adviser. Perhaps the school based council will be taught how to do its job. But programs should have been in place to cover much of that sort of training long before the schools reached Tier 5. The plans don’t restructure governance; they just provide more training of the type that already should have been afforded existing governance teams under school improvement plans that NCLB requires long before schools reach Tier 5 status.

The final issue this report examines is whether changes actually have occurred in school leadership, the obvious intent of “No Child.” The study shows that many principals in Kentucky’s Tier 5 schools have held their positions for a number of years – in some cases far longer than seems reasonable based on school performance.

For example, a principal in a school mired in Tier 5 status for three years – thereby failing federal requirements for a running total of eight years – has held that position since at least the 2002-03 school year. In fact, six Tier 5 school principals have held their positions since at least the 2002-03 term.

Thus, while language in “No Child” and statements in many Kentucky reports on “No Child” performance have consistently told parents and the public that “Alternative Governance” would happen once a school reached Tier 5 status, a total of 24 schools had the same principal in the 2008-09 school year who served during the 2006-07 term – three school terms ago – and before the schools entered Tier 5, when “Alternative Governance” was promised.

While the author of this report recognizes that reasonable explanations may exist in some cases, the overall level of extended incumbency of principals in Kentucky’s Tier 5 schools clearly shows that the commonwealth largely disregards the governance-change requirement mandated by federal law. It seems clear that Kentucky’s education leaders have no interest in complying with a clear and common-sense based “No Child” requirement that once a school enters Tier 5, its management should undergo significant changes.

Click here to view the entire report