Annual Yearly Progress and Schools: A Critical Look

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 disabilities.”

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 Gazette:

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 subgroups.

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.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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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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