Individual Student Improvement Should Trump All Else

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dear Extra Credit:

As a fifth-grade math teacher at KIPP DC: AIM Academy public charter school, I have heard a lot of discussion about No Child Left Behind testing results. School districts, school administrators and parents struggle to interpret data that compare different groups of students from different years against arbitrary proficiency measures. Schools are forced to defend results that do not distinguish between those who fall just short of making AYP [adequate yearly progress] and those who fail miserably.

I would suggest changing one aspect of NCLB to improve teacher accountability. AYP status is based solely on an absolute measure of proficiency and does not account for student growth. I think an accountability program that does both would be more useful for teachers and schools.

The current system can lead teachers to discount or inflate their sense of success in the classroom. In schools where students arrive far below grade level, failure to reach grade level does not necessarily mean failure in learning. For schools whose students come in significantly ahead, reaching grade level is not a rigorous standard. A 5-foot-10-inch basketball player who tries to learn how to dunk faces a task quite different from that of someone who is 6-10.

At KIPP, we do not lower expectations for any student, no matter how far below grade level he or she is. Ultimately, we want all students to be proficient, but this takes time. A teacher who fails to make AYP in a single year might still be making significant progress with his or her students. For example, only 44 percent of my fifth-grade math students were proficient on the 2007 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test. However, the 2007 Stanford Achievement Test 10 showed that they entered at the 20th percentile on the beginning of the year pre-test and reached the 70th percentile on the end-of-year post-test.

Whenever NCLB comes up, I find that people immediately look to whether a given school has made AYP. I am more concerned with how each student has grown after a year under my instruction. AYP does not tell me this. I must look to other, more sophisticated measures.

Lisa Suben


KIPP DC: AIM Academy

Congress Height s , D.C.

I am going to take more than my customary amount of space to respond to your letter because I think you have put your finger on a problem that bothers parents and teachers throughout the Washington area. The Washington Post has been reporting that many schools failed to make adequate yearly progress last year. It is particularly troublesome when that happens at the school your children attend or where you teach.

I think a parent should focus on how the child is doing, not how the school is doing. I think a teacher should focus, as you have done, on how the students are doing, not how the school is doing. If parents find their children have improved significantly in achievement over the previous year, and if teachers find their students, such as yours, have done the same, then I think it is a waste of time to fret over your school not making AYP.

Schools with many low-income children -- in your school they account for 83 percent of the student body -- will find it much more difficult to reach AYP than schools that have mostly middle-class children, even when those low-income kids are improving impressively. They start from a lower point, which makes it harder to reach an overall target for a whole state or school district.

As any suburban principal will tell you, the law also has little booby traps that can lead you to miss AYP even if nearly every child in the school is doing well.

I have argued for a long time that the No Child Left Behind law is a mess but better than any possible alternatives. In that way, it is just like democracy.

That is a fitting comparison because the worst parts of the law, such as the notion that all children can be proficient in reading and math by 2014, are the result of its being written by democratically elected politicians. Very smart legislators in both the Republican and the Democratic parties have explained to me that it would have been politically disastrous to write a bill that said only 60, 70 or even 80 percent of children had to be proficient by 2014, because in the next election their opponents would have run TV spots that said, "Do we want a member of Congress who voted to leave 20 percent of our kids behind?"

So the law forces us to move toward an impossible goal. So what? As you point out, at least we are moving forward. Now, we have to urge the legislators to rewrite that law so that it judges schools more on the year-to-year improvement of each child, rather than meeting an annual target.

You have given me the data on last year's AIM fifth-graders. I looked up the results for last year's sixth-graders, including your 2005-06 fifth-graders, who also improved a great deal.

On the D.C. test, that class went from 38 percent proficient in fifth grade to 49 percent proficient in sixth grade in reading and from 32 percent to 78 percent in math.

That is something to brag about, not worry about. If your child, or the children in your class, are showing such gains, you can ignore AYP and wait for Congress to fix the law so we can see more clearly what great teachers like you are doing.

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