Clock ticks for AZ to meet 'No Child' goals
Arizona Daily Star

Sept. 23, 2008

By Rhonda Bodfield
Tucson, Arizona | Published:
After No Child Left Behind got its wheels in 2002, Arizona had a choice: Hurt now or hurt later.
It chose later.
And it was in good company.
When states sat down to draw up benchmarks on how to get 100 percent of students to meet reading and math standards by 2014, some did the equivalent of drawing a straight line from where they were to where they needed to be, requiring gains in roughly equal increments.
About half — including Arizona — chose what's known as a "backloaded" approach, in which schools eased into the law in the early years, only to have sharper increases required as they head into the final stretch.
But now, as the law hits its halfway mark, the bill is coming due. And Arizona could be among states that will be hard-pressed to reach those necessary achievement levels as the deadline approaches.
In Arizona, progress is measured by how students do on the state's high school graduation test, AIMS, and gains in attendance and graduation.
Although states themselves aren't subject to accountability sanctions, school districts and individual schools that don't meet progress on those goals for two years in a row are identified as "needing improvement."
Missing the target thereafter triggers corrective action, including possible mandates to replace staff members and curriculum, to provide increased tutoring and even to force schools to provide transportation to send students elsewhere for a better education.
By the end of the 2005-06 school year, states reported that 12 percent of schools had missed their targets for at least two years.
That number will certainly grow. The Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, an advocacy group for public education, published a report in May that warned of the looming cluster of states headed for problems. Its president, Jack Jennings, compared the structure to "the academic equivalent of a mortgage payment that is about to balloon far beyond their current ability to pay."
Take Arizona, which required 25 percent of its high school students to meet math standards in 2005. That number climbed to 40 percent in 2007 and stays at that plateau until 2010 — a gain of 15 percentage points in a five-year period.
But each year after that requires a 15 percent leap up the charts to get to 100 percent.
Reading is only slightly less ambitious, requiring roughly 13 percent gains every year.
It only made sense to call for more progress in later years, said Tom Horne, the state schools chief.
"It takes schools time to adjust to what is expected of them," he said. "It's a well-accepted principle of psychology — anytime you put a requirement on people, it's got to be a requirement that's possible to meet."
Horne said he couldn't pinpoint a year when Arizona will hit a wall when it comes to meeting federal expectations. "It depends on how well we do with our reform efforts. We've been able to keep up so far," he said. "The hope is that education reform starts taking hold."
Horne, who supports the law's overarching idea of setting standards and meeting them, has been one of its most outspoken critics at the same time, blasting the federal government for micromanaging states.
Although he's not sure 100 percent is realistic, he contends it's "substantially obtainable."
So far, the state has been meeting the bars it set. About 58 percent of high school students passed the most recent math AIMS test — that fits comfortably within the framework until 2011, when 70 percent of them have to get to proficiency.
Although Horne chalked the slow ramp-up to practicality, others suggest some states chose to be late bloomers in a gamble that the law wouldn't be around by the time 2014 arrived, especially given the 2009 exodus of President Bush, who pushed for the law.
Congress took no action on the law when it came up for reauthorization last year. That was largely a function of political expediency as everyone waits to see who will be next to inhabit the Oval Office.
Reform advocates had hoped it would be part of the election debate, but so far, it's been back-burnered to the melting economy, the Iraq war and lipstick.
Both presidential candidates have made only the tiniest mention of the law on their issues pages. Democrat Barack Obama applauds the goal but said it needs sufficient funding and a better way of tracking student progress than forcing teachers to spend the year "preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests." Republican John McCain lauds the law's focus on standards and accountability, but his Web site calls it only the beginning of education reform.
Arizona Democratic Congressman Raϊl Grijalva sat through meeting upon meeting to jaw over proposed changes, only to see leadership decide to wait for the new administration. But, he predicted, it's going to get the attention of Congress soon.
"WIth states concentrated the way they are, there's going to be so much pressure on Congress to make some changes," Grijalva said. "If they were more stretched out, it's easier to ignore. But if — bam! — half of the states are in trouble, that's going to be harder to ignore."
The U.S. Department of Education reported in October 2007 that based on its analysis of data submitted by 36 states, most wouldn't meet the goal of 100 percent proficiency unless student achievement increases at a faster rate. In fact, it said only Nebraska was on track to get all groups of students up to speed by then.
In a best-case scenario, many observers think that by the time interest groups hammer out bugaboos like resources and accountability, it might not get reauthorized until 2010. And with other pressing matters, it could slip into 2011.
Maggie Shafer, a chief academic officer at the Tucson Unified School District, said the law is going to have to be changed because 100 percent isn't realistic, even if it's a desirable goal — and one she has a hard time dismissing. "I don't want it to be my child or your child who isn't part of the group that's progressing," she said.
For now, district officials are out in schools, watching teachers teach and asking principals to provide more support. Shafer said schools for a while were too focused on remediation. Now the focus is back on asking teachers for high-quality instruction the first time around, with constant assessment and timely feedback.
Steve Courter, head of the teachers union, the Tucson Education Association, said teachers aren't yet at the freaking-out point.
"The intensity of interest and concern is probably going to kick in in a year or two," he predicted. "They're not really focused on the 2014 phenomena."
He said teachers also exhibit a degree of fatalism. "As a teacher, you have these kids day to day and you're doing everything you can to move them forward, regardless of the graphs and numbers," he said. "What can you do but your best?"
On StarNet: Search our database of AIMS test scores for schools statewide at
● Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at