Is 'Adequate Yearly Progress' an adequate measure?

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Chris Braunlich is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and a member of the Virginia State Board of Education. The views expressed here are his own.  He may be reached at c.braunlich@att.net. This column was shortened for space considerations.

I still have my notes from nine years ago.
Speaking at a dinner meeting hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Institute, then-Virginia School Board President Mark Christie argued that “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was doomed to failure.
“No Child Left Behind requires that 100 percent — every student — meet a state’s proficiency standards or be deemed a failure,” Christie said. “That’s a statistical impossibility, and when good schools fail to meet the goal, the public will revolt, and standards-based education will be at risk.”
Nine years later, Christie’s words echo in a letter sent by Gov. Bob McDonnell to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “A model that increasingly misidentifies schools as low performing and confuses the public about the quality of their schools does not advance the cause of reform and accountability.”
Worse, the public is increasingly confused by the alphabet soup of educational programs and rarely differentiates between an SOL (Standard of Learning) and an AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress).
Virginia was one of the first states to “raise the bar” on student achievement by increasing the “Standards of Learning” and creating SOL tests measuring whether students had mastered the subject work.
The battle to create a content-based system was hugely controversial in Virginia. And today Virginia’s SOL program enjoys widespread bipartisan support — especially when compared with the federal NCLB program.
The 2001 NCLB attempted to build on standards-based accountability. The theory was that each state would use its own testing system to measure student progress in reading and math.
The validity of state-based tests would be measured against the federal National Assessment for Educational Progress. Scores would be reported for white students, black students, Hispanics, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency, as well as for the student population as a whole.
No longer would a school be able to “hide behind” high-performing students giving the school a higher average while ignoring low-performing students.
Each school and school division was required to make AYP by meeting a rising percentage of students passing each year, until 100 percent of students were passing state exams by 2014.
In other words, if 75 percent of students were required to pass math in a particular year and all student segments passed except one, the school or school division would be deemed as not making AYP.
For schools that repeatedly failed to meet AYP, the federal government prescribed possible corrective actions.
Hence, because the “finish line” moved further down the field, a school that “made AYP” one year could be a “failing school” the following year, even if most of its student scores remained the same or increased. This year, in Virginia, 342 schools were classified in that murky category.
Because making AYP is based on SOL passage, the public has easily become confused between these two standards. While NCLB has both virtues and disadvantages, the key measure for Virginians is SOL exams.
There is legitimate discussion about Virginia’s accountability system: Are the standards high enough? Do they cover the right material? Are student assessments rigorous enough? Are the cut-scores (the score considered “passing”) at the right levels?
Should there be alternative assessments for certain student populations (i.e., special education or English language learners) and what should be the criteria for their usage?
Have teachers become too focused on “passing the SOLs” to the detriment of other material and if so, what should be done about it?
But a frenzied argument over Virginia’s performance on a flawed federal standard is a distraction from the real focus, which should be on constantly improving Virginia’s own accountability system.