Once upon a time, well-heeled suburban schools used to have to worry about whether all their students made the grade—not just some of them, not just the White ones and the middle-class ones. The “good schools” could no longer hide the lackluster performance of their most vulnerable groups of students—students with disabilities, English-language learners and low-income kids—behind rosy test scores. Because if the vulnerable students were failing, then the whole school was considered failing (or “not making annual yearly progress,” as the feds gently phrased it). Yep, that was a harsh label, and the backlash against it was fierce and probably led to the evisceration of the law once known as
No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Call me sentimental, but I miss the days when “good” schools had to send out those embarrassing letters to thousands of their families offering transfers to better schools or free tutoring. Because it was an acknowledgement that groups of kids in their schools were falling through the cracks, and it forced them to take this issue more seriously. I was an education reporter covering suburban districts in 2002 when NCLB became the law of the land, and it was imperfect on so many levels. It narrowed the curriculum. It encouraged states to set their passing standards low so that big numbers of students could pass without really learning what they needed for high school, college and beyond. Schools got no credit for helping students grow in their learning, only for passing. And in the end, the key remedies didn’t really work. Students
didn’t sign up for tutoring or transfer to better schools. The dramatic restructuring demanded of perennially failing schools rarely materialized. Districts just flat out ignored parts of the law, including the requirement that highly qualified teachers should be evenly distributed between poor and affluent schools. But the law shined a very bright light on how all students were progressing academically—not just in urban districts where test-based accountability took hold long before NCLB, but also in suburban and rural districts that never had to report their progress to parents or the taxpaying public. And dang, those letters. They sure did put a scare in some schools that had been complacent for a very long time. And they sure did piss off parents, who had paid dearly to live in a well-resourced school district and didn’t want the word “failing” attached to it in any way.
What's It Gonna Take?
I spent some time at one of those well-resourced schools at the launch of those NCLB years, because every bit of data about this school suggested it should have been succeeding. But it wasn’t, not even close. I
wrote this in 2002:
It is a small high school in the middle-class community of west suburban Norridge, where 87 percent of the students are White and only 4 percent are from low-income families. The student body is stable and deeply connected to the school—almost 94 percent graduate, less than 1 percent are chronically truant, only about 8 percent move in and out of the district in a given school year, and nearly all of Ridgewood's 850 students participate in some extracurricular activity. The one-school district is blessed with a thriving commercial tax base and spends a healthy $10,830 per student, which translates into small class sizes and loyal teachers. …Yet the scores at Ridgewood are disappointing—only 48 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on all tests this year. Composite scores on the ACT are not too impressive either—19.5, compared with the state average of 19.9. An analysis of the local middle school scores from 1999 suggests students are losing ground after arriving at Ridgewood—especially in reading. More than 80 percent of eighth graders taking the ISATs at Ridgewood's three feeder schools met or exceeded state standards in reading and writing…When that same group of students took the state tests this spring as 11th-graders at Ridgewood, only 50 percent passed the reading test…
The school leaders took some of the heat—they were slow to teach problem solving and adapt to advancements in curriculum. But they mostly pointed the finger at parents with their “blue-collar sensibility that values work over elite college admissions” and students who “either don't have time or are not motivated to enroll in the rigorous college-preparatory classes.” At the time, the superintendent outlined a series of classroom reforms to meet the escalating demands of NCLB. "We're changing to meet these new expectations," he said. So 15 years later, how did these promised changes improve the school? Turns out,
not so much. The school spends a lot more than it did 15 years ago—per-pupil costs now top $20,000—and the number of low-income students have climbed to 32 percent. But now only 36 percent of 11th graders tested as proficient. The school’s score on the mandated SATs averaged 1018 (for combined reading and math), about a few points better than the state’s average of 1016. Some 93 percent of students graduated in four years, but of those, 41 percent attended community college and two-thirds of those students needed college remediation. So there you go. A whole generation of students stagnating in one high-spending school, buried under excuses and lost in a sea of empty promises. If this is what happens under the bright glare of accountability, what do we think will happen when no one is watching?
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...