No Child-Loophole: Nearly Two Million Scores Uncounted
Laquanya Agnew and Victoria Duncan share a desk, a love of reading and a passion for learning. But because of a loophole in the No Child Left Behind Act, one second-grader’s score in Tennessee counts more than the other’s.
That is because Agnew is Black, and Duncan is White.
An Associated Press computer analysis found that Agnew is among nearly 2 million children whose scores aren’t counted when it comes to meeting the law’s requirement that schools track how students of different races perform on standardized tests.
Associated Press found that states are helping public schools escape potential penalties by skirting that requirement. And minorities — who historically haven’t fared as well as Whites in testing — make up the vast majority of students whose scores are excluded.
The U.S. Department of Education says that while it is pleased that nearly 25 million students nationwide are now being tested regularly under the law, it is concerned that the Associated Press found so many students who aren’t being counted.
“Is it too many? You bet,” says Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Are there things we need to do to look at that, batten down the hatches, make sure those kids are part of the system? You bet.”
The story of the two second-graders shows how a loophole in the law is allowing schools to count fewer minorities in required racial categories.
There are about 220 students at West View Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., where President Bush marked the second anniversary of the law’s enactment in 2004. Tennessee schools have federal permission to exclude students’ scores in required racial categories if there are fewer than 45 students in a group.
There are more than 45 White students. Duncan counts.
There are fewer than 45 Black students. Agnew does not.
One of the consequences is that educators are creating a false picture of academic progress.
“We’re forcing districts and states to play games because the system is so broken, and that’s not going to help at all,” says Dr. Kathy Escamilla, a University of Colorado education professor. “Those are little games to prevent showing what’s going on.”
Under the law signed by Bush in 2002, all public school students must be shown to be proficient in reading and math through testing by 2014. No scores can be excluded from a school’s overall measure.
States are helping schools at risk of getting a failing grade by using a loophole in the law that allows them to ignore scores of racial groups that are too small to be statistically significant.
Suppose, for example, that a school has 2,000 White students and nine Hispanics. In nearly every state, the Hispanic scores wouldn’t be counted because there aren’t enough to provide meaningful information and because officials want to protect students’ privacy.
Nearly two-dozen states have successfully petitioned the government to exclude the scores of certain groups. As a result, schools can now ignore racial breakdowns even when they have 30, 40 or even 50 students of a given race in the testing population.
To calculate a nationwide estimate, Associated Press analyzed the 2003-2004 enrollment figures the government collected — the latest on record — and applied the current racial category exemptions the states use.
Overall, Associated Press found that about 1.9 million students — or about 1 in every 14 test scores — aren’t being counted under the law’s racial categories. Minorities are seven times as likely to have their scores excluded as Whites, the analysis showed.
Less than 2 percent of White children’s scores aren’t being counted as a separate category. In contrast, Hispanics and Blacks have roughly 10 percent of their scores excluded. More than one-third of Asian scores and nearly half of American Indian scores aren’t broken out, the analysis found.
Bush’s home state of Texas excludes scores of 65,000 Asian students and several thousand American Indian students. The same is true in Arkansas.
Students whose tests aren’t being counted in required categories also include Hispanics in California who don’t speak English well, Blacks in the Chicago suburbs, American Indians in the Northwest and special education students in Virginia.
State educators defend the exemptions, saying minority students’ performance is still being included in their schools’ overall statistics even when they aren’t being counted in racial categories. Excluded minority students’ scores may be counted at the district or state level.
The Education Department continues to give widely varying exemptions to states. Oklahoma lets schools exclude the test scores from any racial category with 52 or fewer members in the testing population, one of the largest across-the-board exemptions. That means 1 in 5 children in the state don’t have scores broken out by race. But Maryland, which tests about 150,000 students more than Oklahoma, has an exempt group size of just five. That means fewer than 1 in 100 don’t have scores counted.
Toia Jones, a Black teacher whose daughters attend school in a mostly White Chicago suburb, says the loophole is enabling states and schools to avoid taking concrete measures to eliminate an achievement gap between White and minority students.
Some students feel left behind, too.
“It’s terrible,” says Michael Oshinaya, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in New York City who was among a group of Black students whose scores weren’t broken out as a racial category. “We’re part of America. We make up America, too. We should be counted as part of America.”
The solution may be to set a single federal standard for when minority students’ scores don’t have to be counted separately, says Ross Wiener, policy director for the Washington-based Education Trust.
While the exemptions were created for good reasons, there’s little doubt now that group sizes have become political, said Wiener, whose group supports the law.
“They’re asking the question, not how do we generate statistically reliable results, but how do we generate politically palatable results,” he says.
— Associated Press
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