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Texplainer: What if Texas Schools Don’t Meet Federal Benchmarks?

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Texas public schools are supposed to have 100 percent passing rates in reading and math by 2014. The chances of meeting that benchmark are slim. So what happens next?

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Hey, Texplainer: What happens to Texas schools whose students don’t meet the federal No Child Left Behind law's benchmarks by the 2014 deadline? 

In 2001 No Child Left Behind set a goal for public school students' passing rates on standardized tests to be at 100 percent in both reading and math by 2014. The Texas Education Agency announced this month that only 44 percent of Texas schools met this year’s goal of an 87 percent passing rate for reading and an 83 percent passing rate for math on the state’s standardized tests. 

With these numbers, the chances of meeting the 2014 goal look slim. 

But No Child Left Behind doesn’t mandate any new punishment for not reaching its goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. 

“The thing that is kind of misunderstood about No Child Left Behind is that the goal of 100 percent proficiency is a goal, not a requirement,” said Diane Rentner, deputy director of the Center on Education Policy, a national organization that promotes public education. “There are no consequences for a state not meeting the 100 percent requirement. If that benchmark is missed, no federal funds are cut off.”

And Texas isn’t the only state far from reaching that goal.

“No state as far as I know is anywhere near to 100 percent proficiency,” Rentner said.

Instead of a new punishment, schools that fail to make the mandated test scores will continue to face the consequences mandated by No Child Left Behind. The law mandates that all public schools meet “adequate yearly progress” standards, which are based on three measures: reading scores, math scores, and either graduation rates for high schools or attendance rates for elementary and middle schools.

The consequences for failing to meet the yearly standards differ depending on whether the public schools get federal funding to serve low-income students — about two-thirds of Texas public schools do.

A federally funded school enters the first stage of sanctions mandated by No Child Left Behind if it fails AYP twice for the same reason two years in a row. For example, if a school misses graduation requirements one year and reading the next, though they’ve failed the yearly progress standards for both of those years, they aren’t subject to sanctions. 

If it still fails to improve — which it must do by meeting standards for two years in a row — the school is subject to escalating sanctions over five stages. At Stage 1, schools have to offer students the option to attend a different school, and must provide transportation to the new school. By Stage 5, schools face more severe penalties, including the replacement of all school staff or takeover of the school by a private company. 

“I would say that one of the most common routes so far has been changing faculty members,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said of schools in Stage 5. “For example, if they’re failing because they have poor math performance, then they bring in a whole new group of math teachers.”

So far, only a small number of Texas schools have made it to Stage 5. Of the 3,305 federally funded schools in the state that missed AYP, 1,159 of them are at the sanction level. Most of them — 976, to be precise — are at Stage 1, while only 59 campuses are at Stage 5. 

Because testing standards rise every year to meet 2014's 100 percent proficiency goal, it’s likely that a larger number of schools will fail to meet the rising requirements with each year. For example, last year the passing rate goals for 80 percent for reading and 75 percent. This year they rose to 87 percent and 83 percent, respectively. 

If a nonfederally funded school fails to meet the yearly standards, they aren’t subject to sanctions, but they do have to implement a campus improvement plan, which addresses how the school will work on its academic shortcomings. That could be include increased teacher training, tutoring sessions or replacing staff members.

Though No Child Left Behind doesn’t have as direct an impact on nonfederally funded schools, missing the yearly requirements makes for bad public relations. 

“A lot of it is the bully pulpit issue,” Ratcliffe said. “When the information’s made public, it puts the spotlight on the school, and hopefully causes them to work to improve their performance.” 

Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan started offering states flexibility in exchange for enacting the Obama administration’s reforms. So far, 33 states have been granted a waiver. Education officials in Texas have resisted applying for the waiver, saying that the strings attached to it — like the requirement that states adopt the waiver’s college-ready and career-ready standards — amounts to federal overreach.

The waiver would require Texas schools to continue with annual accountability measures, but would free them from trying to reach 100 percent proficiency on reading and math tests by 2014. It would also release federally funded schools from requirements under the current sanction system, including the mandatory free tutoring and transfer options. 

That also isn’t the only option for the state’s schools to get some relief from No Child Left Behind’s requirements. 

Texas could try applying for a different waiver request — one that involves appealing to Duncan under his general authority to grant waivers on education issues — in the hope that the state wouldn’t have to adopt all the requirements of the waiver he has offered to all the states. 

The TEA could seek to modify some of the provisions in its own Adequate Yearly Progress workbook, like changing passing standards at the state level, as well. Those would be subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Education and would have to wait until early 2013 so that the TEA can set passing standards under the new accountability system first. 

But Ratcliffe said the agency’s preference is for Congress to change the law, something many believe is unlikely to happen this year. Though many would like to see No Child Left Behind revisited, politicians haven’t been able to agree about which specific amendments they’d like to make — possible changes include reforming the sanction system, nixing the requirement that students receive transfer options, or changes to funding formulas. 

“Everyone agrees that a big overhaul is needed, but no one agrees on the details,” Rentner explained. 

Bottom line: If No Child Left Behind remains unchanged by Congress — and Texas doesn't get a waiver from the federal government in one form or another or change its own accountability standards — it’s likely that more campuses in Texas will have to implement serious measures, ranging from offering free tutoring to bringing in private management or changing faculty members. 

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