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How to gauge a school's progress

As Congress prepares to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, more educators want new definitions of achievement.

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What's the right balance between pushing schools to reach a goal and giving them credit for making progress, even if they fall short?

That's a key question lawmakers are considering as they prepare to reauthorize the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), set up five years ago with the hope of closing achievement gaps in public schools.

The call has been coming from all corners to incorporate "growth models" into the way schools are judged. Rather than simply comparing this year's group of third-grade or eighth-grade scores with last year's, advocates say, states should also track the progress of students individually, and see how much they learn over the course of a year.

Under the current system, a school in Milwaukee with only 2 percent of its students scoring "proficient" in reading and math progressed to about 42 percent proficient in a few years. But because that number was still below state targets under NCLB, it received the same label as schools that may have made no progress at all, according to the recent report by the bipartisan Commission on No Child Left Behind.

Expand credit for improvements

Everyone from civil rights groups to teachers' unions to the secretary of Education herself has acknowledged that giving schools some credit for their students' improvements makes sense. For instance, they say it would be more fair to schools with a high turnover of students (common in high-poverty areas), because they could show the learning outcomes of students actually taught there that year, versus newcomers, who may have low scores reflecting their previous experience.

"If we [want] to improve the effectiveness of schools, how are we going to do that if that's not what we're measuring?" says Paul Barton, an educational consultant and former director of the Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center. By simply looking at whether a certain percentage of students score proficient on an end-of-year standardized test, he says, states are measuring what students have learned in their entire life up until that point – which is affected by many factors other than what they are taught in school.

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