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How Minnesota's Eastern Neighbor Games NCLB

October 08, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, then behold Wisconsin, the home of thousands of beautiful students.

Or so No Child Left Behind test results would tell us. This year, more than 900 Minnesota schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress" under NCLB standards. Last year, 483 schools failed to meet their goals. On the other hand, 156 Wisconsin schools failed to meet NCLB goals this year, up from 95 the year before.

Does that mean Wisconsin students are smarter than those in Minnesota?

"Wisconsin and Minnesota students are very similar in every way," said Charlie Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "By all measures - the ACT, the NAEP - they're the same."

The difference is what one researcher has snarkily referred to as "pangloss."

In "The Pangloss Index: How States Game the No Child Left Behind Act," Kevin Carey suggests that some states act like Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's "Candide" who puts a rosy glow on the world. Carey claims that NCLB reveal a state's educational ability not as it is, but as the state defines itself. He pegs Wisconsin as the worst offender.

Put simply, NCLB requires every student to be rated proficient on standardized tests for reading, math and science by 2014. Starting in 2003, states could choose by what increments their schools increase each year to reach that goal. Minnesota, under then-Commissioner of Education Cheri Pierson Yecke, chose a straight-line approach to the 2014 goal. Wisconsin chose a model more reminiscent of an adjustable-rate mortgage with low increases at the front of the deal and steep increases closer to 2014.

These charts show the percentage of students who need to test at proficient or better in order for a school to make adequate yearly progress.

Wisconsin does better with AYP because its requirements are more relaxed farther away from 2014.

Some have suggested canniness to Wisconsin's approach. NCLB is up for renewal and will likely be addressed in Congress in 2009. Wisconsin's steep AYP increases will start in 2010, one year after the law will be either renewed or changed.

For the most part, Minnesota students perform well in other measures of academic success. This is why educators are graveled about Wisconsin's seeming AYP superiority when, in fact, the results are simply a difference in testing philosophy. Educators have long argued that AYP does not measure educational success, but that's exactly how the information is presented to the public. They also say that AYP includes no provisions for schools that excel but still fall short of AYP goals.

A study conducted by Minnesota 2020 and a Macalester College Political Science Department research class last spring showed that teachers in at least one district feel NCLB is hindering their efforts to provide a quality education. Labeling a school as "needs improvement" after its students don't make AYP forces teachers to teach to the test so the artificial scores will rise, thus changing the subjects involved in a student's education. Financially punishing schools labeled as "needs improvement" is counterproductive and counterintuitive.

"I am concerned that NCLB will narrow educational focus and produce a generation of students who are missing creativity, critical thinking skills and inquiry," one teacher commented in the study.

In the meantime, Minnesota parents are told that half their schools don't measure up, while Wisconsin parents know that about 90 percent of their schools make the grade even though Minnesota and Wisconsin students and education systems are alike.

"Minnesota did the right thing by making the proficiency bar high," Kyte said. "Higher standards are good, but the numbers are bad - 50 percent failure as opposed to 8 percent. That doesn't look so good."

Kyte is right: Accountability is good but NCLB is terribly flawed. When two similar systems produced such divergent results, the conclusion can only be that the data is inaccurate. The sooner NCLB is revised or removed, the better for Minnesota.

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