commentary

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

October 10, 2004

Parents of Schoolchildren: Start Your Information Engines

by Brian Gill and Laura S. Hamilton

The No Child Left Behind Act will provide ever more data on student achievement, giving parents cause to be even more vigilant

The No Child Left Behind Act is the most ambitious federal intervention in K-12 schooling in American history. Absent a major revision by Congress, the law's impact on schools across the country and in southwestern Pennsylvania will increase dramatically beginning next year. In particular, an increasing number of parents around the region will have access to new educational options because their local school will be identified for improvement under the law.

In 2004, the proportion of schools that met the law's requirements for adequate yearly progress increased substantially both in Pennsylvania and in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. But similarly dramatic improvements are unlikely in the next few years, as the standards for adequate yearly progress are ratcheted upward and as the number of tested grades and subjects increases.

These two factors, along with the schedule of sanctions mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, mean that the number of schools that are identified for improvement will almost inevitably increase, at least in the short run.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools identified for improvement (those that have failed to meet their adequate yearly progress targets for two years) are required to offer their students the option to attend other, higher-performing schools in the district. Schools that fall short of adequate yearly progress for a third year are additionally required to offer supplemental educational services -- typically tutoring -- to their low-income students free of charge. Parents are expected to select tutoring services from among a range of providers that have been approved by the state.

This new parental empowerment can be exercised effectively only if parents have sound information about schools and tutoring providers. No Child Left Behind takes the first step in this direction, requiring that states publish reports on school performance -- now available from the Pennsylvania Department of Education in a user-friendly format at www.paayp.com.

As a consequence, there is now an unprecedented amount of information and schools available to anyone with an Internet connection. But do these data provide the kind of information parents need?

Simple designations such as "met adequate yearly progress targets" or "in need of improvement" do not necessarily indicate whether schools are doing a good job. The high scores posted by some schools might result more from a high-ability student population and involved parents than from school effectiveness. Otherwise high-performing schools sometimes fail to meet targets because of low performance by a small subgroup of students. And there is no rigorous information available on the achievement gains produced by various state-approved tutoring providers.

We are likely to see increasing efforts to provide clear and useful data to parents and other community members. Already, national organizations such as the Public Education Network and local organizations such as the Pittsburgh Council on Public Education have produced materials designed to help parents understand No Child Left Behind reports. And the state has contracted with the Grow Network to improve its method of reporting scores for individual students.

These efforts are useful, but they do not address the fundamental shortcomings of No Child Left Behind-style accountability: its reliance on scores at a single point in time rather than growth, its focus on a narrow range of outcomes, and its complex provisions that make it difficult to know what "making adequate yearly progress" actually means.

Several state and local initiatives are attempting to address some of these shortcomings. Ideally, the state, districts and schools will provide additional information that parents need to make critical decisions about schools and tutoring services, and that taxpayers need to hold their elected school boards accountable for results.

An increasing number of districts in Pennsylvania -- including Wilkinsburg, South Fayette, Mt. Lebanon and the Pittsburgh Public Schools -- are participating in a "value-added assessment" program that provides information about school performance based on individual student growth rather than simply school-level average scores. This type of system has the potential to provide more useful information for parents and educators, and is one promising approach that takes advantage of the increasing availability of data on student achievement.

Realizing the potential of No Child Left Behind -- and avoiding possible pitfalls -- will require local districts and the state to go beyond the formal requirements of the law and provide additional information about the performance of schools and tutoring providers. Over the next several years, improvements in information technology, increasing levels of Internet access and a public that is increasingly accustomed to the new accountability environment should contribute to a growing emphasis on providing clear and accurate data to parents.

Ultimately, these efforts might produce a more informed and involved public that will exert a positive influence on schools far beyond the direct influence of the law's sanctions.

Brian Gill is a social scientist and Laura Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp. in Pittsburgh.

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 10, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.