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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Improving the Education of Children Living in Poverty
Richard J. Murnane

Improve Accountability

Congress could improve educational accountability by amending NCLB to make test score goals attainable and to develop goals for increasing high school graduation rate requirements.

Make Test Score Goals Ambitious, but Attainable
Robert Linn, one of the nation’s foremost experts on educational accountability systems, suggests several constructive changes in the adequate yearly progress provisions of NCLB.13 One, aimed at reducing the variation across states in the proficiency standard, is to define the minimum score for proficiency (often called the cut score) on a state assessment to be equal to the median score of students in the state who took the test in 2002. Although in some ways an arbitrary choice, 2002 is the first year after passage of NCLB. Linn also recommends requiring that the share of students scoring above that cut score increase by something like 3 percentage points a year—so that the target for 2006 would be 62 percent and that for 2014, 86 percent, rather than 100 percent. Judged against the fastest rates of improvement observed on NAEP tests, these targets would be ambitious but, unlike the current targets, not unrealistic.

Linn also makes a suggestion in response to the problem that schools serving a greater number of the subgroups specified in the law (including poor children, black children, Hispanic children, and children with disabilities) are more likely to fall short of adequate yearly progress than schools serving a more homogeneous group of students.14 He would amend the so-called safe harbor provision of NCLB—an alternative way for a school to satisfy AYP—so that when a subgroup of students in a school falls short of adequate yearly progress, the school as a whole can still meet the target if the share of students in the subgroup who score in the below-proficient category declines by at least 3 percentage points each year. This change could reduce the disincentives for skilled teachers to work in racially and ethnically diverse schools.

Linn also suggests modifying the safe harbor provision to allow schools to make adequate yearly progress if their students make specified gains in achievement over a school year rather than reaching specific achievement levels, as under current law. Allowing schools to meet targets by demonstrating growth in students’ skills could also reduce the disincentive for skilled teachers to work in schools serving high concentrations of poor children.15 The Department of Education has shown itself open to such a change. In 2006 it approved applications from five states to participate in a pilot program in which schools could make adequate yearly progress by demonstrating gains in the achievement of students scoring below the proficiency cut score.16

Add Serious High School Graduation Rate Requirements
Individual states now estimate high school graduation rates in many different, noncomparable ways. Given the importance of high school graduation in determining the economic future of the country’s youth, it makes sense to require that states, districts, and schools measure graduation rates in the same way and that they meet common requirements for improving these graduation rates.

In 2005 the nation’s governors signed a “Graduation Counts Compact” that committed their states to implementing a common method for calculating their high school graduation rates.17 By 2010 thirty-nine states plan to report graduation rates based on this formula. The Department of Education is providing competitive grants to state education departments to develop data systems to track students over time and has already awarded grants totaling more than $52 million to fourteen states. It may thus soon be possible to put in place meaningful accountability provisions to increase high school graduation rates.