News: CJ Exclusives

NCLB Report Cards Raise Questions

Parents can access data but confusing format hinders understanding

A review of student performance data reported by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction raises questions about how well the state is doing in reaching the No Child Left Behind Act’s ultimate goal of having all pupils performing at proficiency or higher by 2014.

Particularly difficult to gauge is whether the public schools, including charter schools, are closing the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students as well as major ethnic and racial groups.

The act requires schools to provide annual state and district report cards to the public and parents in a format that is “understandable and uniform.” The data are to be widely and readily available through agencies, the media, and the Internet so that parents and the public can determine whether students are making adequate yearly progress toward meeting the state’s academic achievement standards. While the data are available to North Carolinians, some say the format and manner in which they are provided make understanding the results confusing and difficult.

To gain access to the results, a parent or citizen must click on several tabs scattered on different areas of the DPI Web site. Often the user is redirected to other sites. With separate tabs for NCLB, AYP, state tests, disaggregated data, and so forth, a parent or citizen has a hard time determining what the results truly mean. Inconsistent terminology and report formats further confound the reader.

For example, the NCLB section of the NC Public Schools Web site reports that the state failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2005-2006 in reading for grades three through eight. Among the items reported are number of students tested, percent tested, percent proficient at or above grade level, attendance, proficiency goal, and so forth.

Because the data are under the NCLB section, a reader would expect to see the data disaggregated by NCLB designated subgroup (e.g., all students, racial/ethic groups, economically disadvantaged, limited English proficiency, and so on). Instead, the section includes a subgroup called free-reduced lunch. It is not clear whether that is the same thing as economically disadvantaged and no explanation is provided.

In another section of the Web site, data are provided for individual schools and then compared to the state’s overall averages. In some cases, the reader finds data reported by proficiency at or above Level III. How does that compare to AYP? A reader is directed to yet another location, often without success in finding data that makes it possible to draw comparisons. Rather than free-reduced lunch as in other reports, the data are provided under the 10 NCLB designated subgroups, including economically disadvantaged.

Notably, a large percentage of charter schools show zero for the number of economically disadvantaged students tested, despite these schools having students in that category. Numerous attempts were made to contact officials in the Department of Public Instruction to clarify the definition of economically disadvantaged students and to find out why there are such inconsistencies in format among the reports and why it is hard to find information in a single location.

Chris Cobitz, chief of Reporting Section for the Department of Public Instruction, said that North Carolina has petitioned the U.S. Department of Education to define economically disadvantaged as a school’s “participation in the free and reduced lunch program,” specifically the National School Lunch program. He also said any school, whether charter or regular public school, that has “fewer than 40 students on free and reduced lunch are not held to a target” and are not included in the AYP reports. At the bottom of some tables in the reports, the reader is told that “N/A” means that there were fewer than five in that subgroup. Finding the explanation for that disparity on Web sites was impossible until being directed to it by Cobitz.

When asked about the variability in reporting formats and how this leads to confusion and difficulty in making comparisons, Cobitz admitted that the data could be confusing but insisted that state education officials are reporting the data as prescribed by the NCLB requirements.

Ken Templeton, principal of Union Academy, said that all charter schools, like other public schools, are required to report data on all students. Templeton said that his school probably has a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than the data show because many parents are reluctant to “fill out the forms because of the social stigma.”

Lindalyn Kakadelis, director of the NC Education Alliance, agreed and said the lack of the data leaves charter schools open to the charge that they are “elitist and do not serve minority and economically disadvantaged students when, in fact, many of them do serve large numbers of these students.”

Templeton estimated that 10 percent of Union Academy’s population is economically disadvantaged, but the school does not participate in free and reduced lunch because the percentage does not meet the required threshold. Therefore, the state school report card for Union Academy reports no data in the economically disadvantaged subgroup.

Such disparities make it hard to determine whether public schools are doing a good job of meeting progress toward the NCLB proficiency goals and, specifically, whether charter schools are doing a better job of closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.

A 2006 report from the Congressional Research Service on NCLBA implementation found that variations among states in assessment and proficiency standards, definitions of specified student subgroups and minimum pupil group size, use of confidence interval in AYP determinations, extent of the 95 percent test participation rate, among other issues, make it harder to determine whether schools are meeting AYP standards. Results on North Carolina’s state report cards appear to validate these concerns.

Apart from its narrow definition of economically disadvantaged, North Carolina reports data in other ways that might skew the results in favor of a higher percentage of schools meeting AYP. The confidence interval to determine whether group test scores fall below required thresholds to a statistically significant degree makes an important difference in the validity of AYP determinations. North Carolina uses a confidence level of 95 percent rather than the more rigorous 99 percent. Adjustments to the size of pupil student group and assessment participation rates can also lead to a higher percentage of schools appearing to meet AYP.

The 2006 CRS report also cautioned that some states are choosing to “lower their standards of ‘proficient’ performance” to make it easier to meet the NCLBA goals and thus “hide the low performance of their schools.” Last year, state education officials admitted they had lowered the standards on the state-developed tests so that a higher number of students would appear to meet the standards, but they promised more rigorous tests in the future.

Karen McMahan is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.