Safe Harbor Won’t Stop the Race to the Bottom


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Charlie Barone did an excellent job unpacking NCLB’s safe harbor provision in reaction to a report by the Center on Education Policy warning of the looming 2014 train-wreck (where 100% of students must be proficient).

I co-authored a study for the Heritage Foundation also critical of the 2014 requirement. My concern is that what states will obviously do is to simply dummy down their tests in order to comply. I believe this process has already started, and will accelerate as the passing requirements escalate.

Barone however unpacked the arcane “Safe Harbor” provision on NCLB. Safe Harbor basically gives you a pass on AYP so long as you can reduce the number of children scoring below proficient by 10%. If this represents an obtainable standard, then presumably states would not feel overly pressured to drop their cut scores.

So, I decided to put safe harbor to a test- a very forgiving one. I looked at data from Florida’s 67 school districts over the past six years on 4th grade Reading and Math. The NAEP shows that Florida has been making solid progress on both subjects.

So what happens if you assume that we are at the 2014 100% requirement, an apply safe harbor to the overall performance of Florida districts? Judging them solely on 4th grade math and reading, and without judging any of the required student subgroups– like the various ethnic groups, free and reduced lunch kids, special education children, etc- Florida’s districts failed to make safe harbor 71% of the time based on the overall results alone.

I’ll leave the debate over whether public schools should be able to routinely reduce their passing rates by 10% year after year to others. The point I am making is: they don’t. I am confident that if required to break down results by various subgroups, that not a single Florida district would have made AYP during these six years under safe harbor. The number of individual schools making safe harbor is also likely to be negligible.

This, during a period of strong statewide improvement in both reading and math.

The sad reality is that, unless changed, NCLB will create a tremendous and perverse pressure on the state of Florida and others to dummy down their state accountability exams. In the greatest of ironies, a bill which aspired first and foremost to create transparency in public education contains the seeds of its own destruction in encouraging states to lower passing standards.

Gene Hickok and I endorsed Senator Cornyn and De Mint’s A-Plus concept as a way out of this looming train wreck. Under it, states could negotiate a single set of testing with the feds: preferably one better designed than a one-size-fits-all system with the mother of all perverse incentives built in. The Department would have discretion as whether to accept a state model rather than AYP, so no one is proposing to burn down the Department of Education.

The administration was not enthused. Nor, to my knowledge, have they ever acknowledged that 2014 is a problem. Nor to my knowledge have they ever embraced anything that could be considered a solution. Refusing to recognize a problem and thus failing to take action against it while it is still relatively manageable- ring any bells?

The Democrats will run the department and Congress, and powerful constituencies in their coalition want to vastly increase federal funding and replace testing with “portfolio assessments.” Now would be an outstanding time for all who believe in public school transparency-Democrats and Republicans- to pull their heads out of the sand on this issue. Safe harbor is not a solution. If you don’t like A-Plus- fine, propose another solution. Pretending like there isn’t a problem is a recipe for disaster.

7 Responses to Safe Harbor Won’t Stop the Race to the Bottom

  1. Diane Hanfmann says:

    Dumbing down seems the inevitable result of a mandated impossible goal. The quiet acceptance of the ludicrous goal of total proficiency with accompanying sanctions does not speak well of those who could be advocating for our public school students.
    How tragic when an act titled No Child Left Behind leads to our country’s curriculum and standards being dumbed down, leaving the US students behind their international competitors…by directive of a national education act.

  2. CodyPT says:

    With so much emphasis being placed on the close of the 2013-14 school year, my question is this: What does NCLB say about what is required in subsequent years?

    Is 100% proficiency required for all school years following 2013-14?

    Life goes on beyond 2013-14. How is the law applied after 2013-14?

  3. Matthewladner says:

    Good question Cody- I had always assumed it stayed the AMO stayed at 100% after 2013-2014. I’ll look into it.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    What you’re proposing is not a radical departure from NCLB as it currently stands, except insofar as you’re calling on DOE to admit that the 100% pass rate in 2014 is a fantasy and permit other standards for measuring what is now called AYP that aren’t tied to the 100% fantasy. States already come up with their own testing and AYP systems under NCLB and then take them to the DOE for approval – which is why I think it’s not fair to call NCLB a “one-size-fits-all” system. Your proposal is to permit (not require) DOE to approve state plans that aren’t tied to the 100% fantasy.

    The problem is that the NCLB political coalition in DC was built on the fantasy. That’s why nobody wants to admit the problem; the political house of cards will fall. What we’ll get then is an interesting question.

  5. KDeRosa says:

    Everyone seems to forget why the AYP rate is 100% in the first place.

    The stated purpose (right in the preamble) is to “close the achievement gap” which is only going to take place when the pass rate is set at 100% or 0%.

    The reason for the gap is that non-asian minorities perform in the neighborhood of a standard deviation below the performance of the majority group. Here is what the achievement gap would be for various pass rates for whites:

    white pass rate 80%: achievement gap: 36 points
    white pass rate 85%: achievement gap: 35 points
    white pass rate 90%: achievement gap: 29 points
    white pass rate 95%: achievement gap: 21 points
    white pass rate 97.5%: achievement gap: 14 points
    white pass rate 99%: achievement gap: 8 points

    Few consider even a 95% pass rate to be feasible yet with that lowered pass rate the achievement gap is still quite large.

    We can fiddle with the numbers (ease of test/improevment of performance) and the relative performance of the groups (1/2 to a full satndard deviation) but as long as both groups approximate a normal distribution the achievment gap will remain high until very high pass rates are achieved.

    (I’m assuming that no one will discover the magic necessary to improve the performance of the lower group relative to the higher group and that both groups will mainatin the same relative performance when tests are made easier and/or teaching improvements are made.)

  6. Diane Hanfmann says:

    Miss DeRosa posts an inconvenient truth , imho, and at the risk of being politically incorrect. Jay Matthews raised the question of the wisdom in closing an achievement gap when such can be mimicked via bringing down the ceiling of achievement. IMHO, this is noted in the national neglect of our nation’s gifted.
    At this time, I refer to Derek Neal’s “Proficiency Counts: Left Behind by Design” and bring up the question of the true intent of NCLB. Was it actually designed to take away support and money from public education? It certainly does not live up to its name. I find it very discouraging that our public school leaders have been so quietly accepting of this train wreck of an act. Where is their advocacy for students and schools?

  7. […] clear-eyed number-cruncher, unafraid to speak truth to power.  That would be Matthew Ladner with Safe Harbor Won’t Stop the Race to the Bottom posted at Jay P. Greene’s Blog.  Also under consideration: William Schimmel who looks at […]

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