States' Evidence: What It Means to Make 'Adequate Yearly Progress' Under NCLB

Explainers | | July 23, 2007
ESEA / No Child Left Behind
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When Congress passed the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, the law's passage initiated a new educational ritual that plays out each summer: States, in reporting on student achievement, announce the schools that did or did not make "adequate yearly progress," or "AYP." Under NCLB, states must hold schools accountable for improving student performance. Specifically, the law requires states to set performance targets that schools must meet. The goal is to ensure that all schools improve their performance over time and have almost all of their students score "proficient on state standardized tests by 2014.

This accountability system is a linchpin of the law, which is the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. And, under NCLB, the consequences for missing AYP are substantial. Schools that do not meet performance targets for multiple years are deemed to be "in need of improvement" and face an escalating series of interventions, including giving students the chance to transfer to other public schools or using school funds for extra tutoring. These interventions can culminate in a school being completely restructured or even closed and reopened under new governance.

Also, NCLB's requirements for AYP are especially noteworthy because in order to meet them, schools must improve the performance of all groups of students, including minority and low-income students and those with disabilities, not just the overall average for students in the school. This was not the case with previous reauthorizations of the 1965 law. For instance, the 1994 version required states to set performance targets, but allowed states tremendous discretion and did not include the type of enforcement measures that are found under NCLB.

Yet, because the consequences for missing AYP under NCLB can be substantial, discussions of AYP often focus on a yes or no question: Did a particular school or school district make AYP or not? But the question that provides the most insight into a school's performance is not whether a school made AYP, but rather how a school did or did not make AYP.

In practice, there are several ways for schools and districts to make AYP. And making AYP looks different from state to state since NCLB allows each state to determine the specifics of how it calculates AYP. States can decide, for example, to average test scores across grades and years. This flexibility gives schools some leeway in meeting NCLB's requirements and makes the requirements less strict than they might appear at first. It also renders many of the common assumptions about AYP—that it requires schools to get every single student to proficiency by 2014, that it does not recognize year-to-year improvements in school test scores, and that all students must achieve at the same level—inaccurate. As NCLB comes up for reauthorization, much of the debate will be about AYP. Thus, understanding the "how" of AYP can help teachers, parents, the public, and the news media make sense of the debate and the central element of NCLB's accountability system.

This Education Sector Explainer provides these audiences with an aid to understanding how NCLB's accountability system works overall and in different states, without weighing in on the merits of the law's 2014 goal. We discuss the basics of "making" AYP and the multiple routes schools can take to get there, and we include data showing what the requirements are in each state to meet AYP this year and for the past two years.

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