Invisible by Design

How Congress Risks Hiding the Performance of Disadvantaged Students

Holding states, districts, and schools accountable for improving the performance of all groups of students remains critical to improving the quality of education in America.

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Students arrive for class at a St. Louis high school, October 22, 2015. (AP/Jeff Roberson)
Students arrive for class at a St. Louis high school, October 22, 2015. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

This issue brief contains a correction.

This past July, for the first time in 15 years, both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives passed bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA—currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. And with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both announcing in September that they will step down from their respective posts, the pressure to pass a new law quickly has increased. Even though bills have passed both chambers of Congress, the conference committee must resolve several important policy differences before a new law gets to the president’s desk. Most importantly, Congress must decide how to ensure that states, districts, and schools are held accountable for improving outcomes for all students.

It is clear that more than 13 years after being signed into law, the NCLB’s approach to accountability is too prescriptive, has led to too many schools identified as failing, and has prescribed the same remedies for all schools regardless of their actual challenges. But the solution to these problems is to build on, rather than ignore, the lessons of the NCLB. For example, states need the flexibility to evaluate school performance across multiple academic indicators—not just test scores—and to focus resources in the schools that need the most help.

While Congress is right to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach of the NCLB, both the Senate and House proposals currently swing too far in the other direction. These proposals give states nearly unlimited discretion in determining how much student achievement figures into their accountability systems. Even worse, it would be entirely up to individual states to decide whether anything should be done to better support schools in which all students or subgroups of students are persistently underperforming.

Already, the dangers of rolling back the federal role in schools is evident in Illinois’ newly proposed state accountability and rating system. In this system, only 30 percent of a school’s performance is based on academic factors. In other words, schools can receive high ratings even if students are not meeting expectations or making academic progress. This approach also permits schools to receive high ratings despite large and persistent achievement gaps.

In practice, Illinois’ proposed plan would allow schools to overlook the academic performance of struggling students and groups of students who are traditionally underserved. And when these schools still receive high ratings despite not serving all students well, the state and districts do not need to take any action to target resources and supports to improve achievement and close gaps. This approach ignores history and rejects common sense: Gaps in achievement between historically disadvantaged students and their peers are long-standing and significant, and simply ignoring these gaps will not make them go away. If Congress reauthorizes the ESEA without provisions that ensure the identification of, and meaningful support for, schools in which subgroups are not making academic progress, it is very likely that state plans such as Illinois’ will become commonplace.

To demonstrate the importance of strong accountability for the performance of all groups of students, the Center for American Progress analyzed the depth and breadth of achievement gaps across the country. Specifically, we looked at differences in performance between entire schools and groups of students within those schools. We found that these differences are often large and that they occur in all kinds of schools and in all kinds of states.

Specifically, we found:

  1. In top-performing schools, historically disadvantaged students perform worse relative to their school’s overall performance than in lower-performing schools.
  2. Approximately 1.2 million black students, 1 million Hispanic students, 2.8 million students with disabilities, 1.5 million students with limited English proficiency, and 2.8 million low-income students attend schools where their performance is more than 10 percentage points lower than their school’s overall performance.
  3. States with smaller black and Hispanic populations often have high proportions of these students in schools where their performance is substantially lower than their school’s overall performance.

CAP used the 2012-13 school-level proficiency rates from the U.S. Department of Education to compare the proficiency rates of student subgroups with the overall performance of their school. We identify schools as having achievement gaps if they have gaps in at least one subject area. See the Appendix for our complete methodology.

CAP believes that Congress should provide states with the flexibility to establish an accountability system that takes into account the performance and progress of all students and subgroups of students across multiple academic indicators. With this flexibility, however, the federal government should require states or districts to take action in schools where all students or groups of students are persistently not making progress, with the most rigorous interventions focused on the schools and students that are furthest behind. In this model, states can create systems to meet the needs of their students without being permitted to hide behind average school performance.

It is important to note that this report does not account for school progress or student growth over time. These measures are key to state accountability systems, since they help determine whether all groups of students are making progress, achievement gaps are closing, and students are making at least a year’s worth of growth. Additionally, simply using an absolute measure of the achievement gap is not enough for an accountability system: Gaps might close, but student achievement could still remain low. Although this analysis presents only a snapshot of achievement gaps in the United States, the findings make clear that these gaps remain an urgent problem. It is also clear that subgroup accountability must be addressed in the ESEA. Yet given that achievement gaps are present in schools that are both high- and low-performing overall, a policy that restricts subgroup accountability to an arbitrary number or a percentage of schools—such as only the lowest-performing schools in a state—is not enough to address existing achievement disparities.

The full issue brief continues in the PDF.

*Correction, October 30, 2015: The title of Table A6 has been updated to accurately reflect that it presents data for students with limited English proficiency.

Scott Sargrad is the Director for Standards and Accountability on the Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Max Marchitello is a Policy Analyst for the Pre-K-12 Education Policy team at the Center. Robert Hanna is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Scott Sargrad

Vice President, K-12 Education Policy

Max Marchitello

Policy Analyst

Robert Hanna

Senior Policy Analyst

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