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Louisiana Faces Uphill Battle to Close Achievement Gap, PAR Says

Louisiana Faces Uphill Battle to Close Achievement Gap, PAR Says
Posted: 07/21/2004

Continuing to hold schools and districts accountable for improving student achievement and closing the academic achievement gap should remain the top priority for Louisiana, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR) said in its report “NCLB: A Steep Climb Ahead” released today.

NCLB has forced Louisiana, quite appropriately, to focus on closing the academic achievement gap. However, its major impact on the state will be the likely identification of upwards of three-fourths of all public schools as failing under Louisiana’s dual accountability system within the next few years. “Labeling a vast majority of schools as failing would render the accountability system of rewards and sanctions meaningless,” said Jim Brandt, PAR president. “It would also further erode public confidence in the public school system as a whole.”

As part of a year-long study undertaken by PAR to analyze the impact of NCLB on Louisiana’s education accountability program, the report raises concerns about the long-term implications of federal accountability. NCLB requires all students and each student subgroup in every public school to reach an academic level of “proficiency” by the 2013-14 school year. Minimal growth in subgroup performance and slowing gains in student achievement suggest Louisiana is unlikely to reach these ambitious goals.

While NCLB has created significant hardships for some states, the initial impact of implementing the federal mandates has been less problematic for Louisiana. It was among a minority of states to have already established a comprehensive accountability system, which included many of the content standards, tests and teacher quality initiatives that are now required under the federal law. With an accountability framework in place, the initial direct costs of adapting the state’s system to meet NCLB requirements have largely been covered by increases in federal funding.

The original goals of Louisiana’s accountability system are also fairly similar to that required under NCLB. Both require significant improvement in the later years of accountability. However, Louisiana no longer has the flexibility under NCLB to modify its performance goals. Expected gains in student achievement within the last three years of the school growth plan are equal to those expected in the first nine years. The current trend in student achievement, combined with the “backloaded” nature of the goals, indicate that schools have an unrealistic, steep climb ahead. (See Figure 1.) “We’ve hit the wall in terms of raising student achievement,” said Brandt. “Given the state’s experience to date, subgroup performance and overall student achievement is unlikely to increase to the level, or by the timeline, required under NCLB.”

In addition, the state’s unique use of multiple 99% confidence intervals in evaluating subgroup performance will only be useful for the next few years. As this statistical safety net becomes less effective over time, schools that appear to be performing well under the state’s accountability program will be identified for improvement under NCLB. Not only will this generate mixed messages about school performance, it will place these schools into school improvement, along with those already identified by the state, resulting in upwards of three-fourths of all schools identified for improvement.

While the initial costs of adapting Louisiana’s accountability system to NCLB have not been significant, the larger question involves the programs and expenditures that will be needed to actually meet the goals. Louisiana’s original goals could have been met with only approximately 95% of students at the proficient level. To bring the remaining 5%, the lowest performing students, up to a level of proficiency could require the most intensive and expensive intervention programs (e.g., lower teacher/pupil ratios, individual tutoring and summer school). The cost of interventions that might be needed to actually raise all students to a level of proficiency, if this is even possible, could easily run in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Regardless of the costs and complexities involved in implementing NCLB, the positive effect of this law is that it has cast a bright light on the need for Louisiana to address its achievement gaps. However, with backloaded performance goals, slowing gains in student achievement and three-fourths of schools possibly falling into school improvement within the next few years, keeping the accountability program on track is becoming increasingly doubtful.

“Leaving no child behind is a laudable, aspirational goal, but it is likely that NCLB will require a major overhaul during the 2007 re-authorization to provide more realistic, attainable objectives,” said Brandt. “Yet, despite the uphill battle ahead, Louisiana cannot afford to weaken its education reform efforts.”

Funding for this research was provided by the United States Department of Education, Fund for the Improvement of Education. Primary author of this report is Stephenie Franks, Research Analyst (sfranks@la-par.org). For additional information or to obtain a copy of the report, visit PAR’s Web site at www.la-par.org.

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