No Child Left Behind, AYP and Montana Schools: Behind the Headlines

Being a teacher at a school labeled as
failing Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind
Law, it's certainly possible that I am not entirely objective in
my feelings about the law. I don't think it presents a fair
depiction of the quality of our schools, nor does it present
realistic goals. As much as I believe that schools and teachers
should be accountable for student success, to argue that all
students will achieve proficiency and graduate ignores reality in a
profoundly naive way.

That being said, my particular concern is that the way that the
Montana Office of Public Instruction is explaining AYP in its press
releases is incredibly unfair. The law simply doesn't measure
schools in the same way. Schools are measured on the success of the
tested students as a whole, and in sub-groups, like racial and
socio-economic groups. The intent of the law is actually sensible
in that it would penalize a school for focusing on the large
majority of students, while failing a minority. OPI, in its recent press release about Montana's
progress, has trumpeted the fact that 90% of Montana schools have
met the federal standard of proficiency.

At the same time, local papers of large Montana schools are
reporting that their schools are not meeting NCLB requirements.
Why? Because many of those schools are not measured in the same way
as small schools. If there are less than 40 members of a sub-group
in a school, the student doesn't have to disaggregate that data,
allowing the school to rely on its total score for AYP targets. The
impact? With few exceptions, the schools that have to report
subgroup data have struggled to meet the law's requirements, while
those who don't pass.

The most obvious disparity is in the treatment of large and small
schools in Montana. Of the 13 AA schools that tested last year, 8
failed. All eight that failed had to report a subgroup on the test
(either students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds
or students with disabilities. It's simply not a fair comparison.
A thorough look at the data demonstrates that many "failing" AA
schools actually outperformed "passing" small schools.

In that light, it's not terribly productive for Superintendent
McCulloch to blame the students rather than the law. Rob Chaney, in
a well-written piece in the Missoulian reported:

In Missoula, if 27 more kids had made AYP in reading at
Big Sky High School, we would not be talking about making AYP in
reading,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction
Linda McCulloch. “It seems awfully unfair to label a school
as failing AYP when a small number of kids didn't do well on one
test taken once a year. And they're your kids with

The "one test taken once a year" is a tired talking point when
there is a more obvious truth: Big Sky was measured by a different
standard than other schools in Montana. Really standing up for
Montana's kids, and especially the 50 per cent who attend the
largest schools, would involve attacking the inequity of the law
and a measurement system that lets 90% of schools pass, while
others face incredible difficulty doing so.

A final piece of this puzzle is seen with an examination of the AA
schools. The following chart demonstrates the proficiency rates and
passage status of the 13 AA schools in 2006-07.

School Reading Score (74)

Math Score (51)

Read Score Studt Econ Disad

Math Score  Studts Econ Disad
Read Score Studt with Disb (74)

Math Scores Studts with   Disb  (51)



Billings Senior 85 61 70 45 56 26 F
Billings West 85 62 * * * * P
Billings Skyview 90 67 * * * * P
Bozeman 89 72 * * * * P
Butte 79 51 66 43 * * F
Flathead 83 65 75 54     F

Great Falls CMR

80 63 70 59     F
Great Falls High 79 57 75 49 * * F
Helena High 78 59 54 31 * * F
Helena Capital 82 61 65 40 * * F
Missoula Hellgate 84 67 80 58 * * P
Missoula Big Sky 79 59 79 54 53 28 F
Missoula Sentinel 90 73 82 60     P

It's pretty striking data. With the exception of Missoula Big Sky
and Sentinel, the schools that did not report a measurable
population of students with disabilities passed the test, while
those who did, failed. This has two obvious implications. The first
is that AYP pass/fail status doesn't really mean anything.
Billings Senior, despite having a measurable population of students
with disabilities and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds
essentially tied Billings West, yet according to these
measurements, West is a passing school.

Let me repeat that. With students less able to succeed, Senior
did as well as West, yet West is considered a successful school and
Senior is not. That kind of incredible "logic" makes AYP an
evaluative joke.

The second implication is more troubling. Why does one school in
Billings and one school in Missoula have reportable numbers, while
the others do not? Skyview and West certainly don't want to add
any students in subgroup populations because that will make passing
AYP more difficult. Think I'm making it up? Ask the Billings

Last year, Skyview High did not make AYP because of low
scores in the economically disadvantaged subgroup. But this year,
there weren't enough students to make up an economically
disadvantaged subgroup. West High, a school that has made AYP since
the law was enacted, doesn't have enough students to make up any

So not only do we have a law that demonizes struggling students and
schools with a more challenging job to do, we have a law that
creates an incentive for schools to manipulate their demographics
to increase their likelihood of passing.

Parents and taxpayers absolutely deserve to know what their schools
are doing. It's incredibly unfortunate that the federal law
designed to do that fails so badly as a measurement, and that
Montana's Office of Public Instruction is using faulty data that
they know measures very little to score political points. Our
students deserve better.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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