Increase in federal education standards leaves local schools behind

A steep increase in federal education standards resulted in a higher number of local schools failing to meet No Child Left Behind Act requirements for the 2010-11 school year than ever before.

But local administrators are more focused on the largely positive feedback from the state ABC standards, and say that failure to meet federal standards doesn’t mean a school lacks quality.

Two out of 13 schools in Orange County made adequate yearly progress (AYP) according to federal standards, while four out of 17 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools did.

By contrast, five schools in Orange County were named Schools of Distinction with the state ABC standards, the third-highest level.
Three Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools were named Honor Schools of Excellence, the highest level, and eight were Schools of Excellence, the second-highest level. All remaining schools were Schools of Distinction.

Michael Gilbert, spokesman for Orange County Schools, said Orange County schools performed better by state standards than by national measures because the state standards focus on improvement, while national standards focus on proficiency and have grown more difficult.

He said a school with low but improving test scores can perform well by ABC standards.

But NCLB — which is undergoing national reform following years of criticism — measures score levels and might rate the same school poorly.

Because national standards set achievement levels for minority groups, schools with many minority groups also have more chances to miss national marks, said Denise Morton, chief academic officer for Orange County Schools.

“The more diverse a school is, the harder it is to make AYP,” Morton said.

The percentage of students that must reach proficiency also increases every three years, compounding the challenge.

Stephanie Knott, spokeswoman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said that increase always results in more schools failing to meet progress standards.

“From the standpoint of those who work in education, it was not a surprise to see AYP results were going down,” she said.

Connie Brimmer, the principal of Pathways Elementary— one of the two Orange County schools to meet all of its federal targets — said increasing standards required 80 percent proficiency in math, a significant challenge.

Gilbert pointed out that the challenge is even greater for middle and high schools. Elementary schools are often smaller and must meet fewer subgroup targets, giving them fewer chances to fail.

Instead of focusing on minority targets and specific score levels, state standards focus on how much a school’s scores improve year-to-year.

Gilbert said because of the all-or-nothing approach to No Child Left Behind, educators tend to value the state standards more.

“Our curriculum is tied directly to the ABCs,” Gilbert said. “Those are a better reflection of what our schools are doing than AYP.”

Morton said the state standards are less punitive and offer valuable feedback about much students have learned during the year.

Despite the looming challenge, studies have shown that the focus on subgroup performance has helped previously overlooked students.

Douglas Lauen, a public policy professor at UNC, said the national program has increased minority students’ test scores, based on a study he and graduate student Michael Gaddis authored.

“It has focused attention on kids that were sometimes left off the side because schools were held accountable for average test scores,” Lauen said.

Brimmer and Morton agreed, saying the attention to subgroups helped educators identify a number of problem areas, including the achievement gap.

“That’s one of the things I agree with,” Morton said. “You really do have to look at the subgroups.”

But Morton said the program has grown cumbersome.

“How can you label a school failing when it’s just one child?”

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