America’s educators, students and families have produced historic progress in student outcomes across the nation in recent years, including reaching the highest high school graduation rate and lowest dropout rates in our history, and narrowing achievement and graduation gaps.
States and districts that have led the way on school reform – including Tennessee, Kentucky, District of Columbia, and Denver – are seeing meaningful gains in student achievement.
At the same time, some students are still denied an equal opportunity to succeed. Information on the performance of schools in each state is attached. Nationally:
- Only four out of ten students attending the lowest-performing under-resourced high schools graduate on time, compared to an 87% graduation rate at all other high schools.
- Between students in the nation’s lowest-performing 5% of elementary and middle schools and their peers in all other schools, there is a 31 percentage point gap in reaching grade-level proficiency in reading, and a 36 percentage point gap in math – in these lowest-performing schools, approximately two-thirds of students do not meet grade level standards.
- Nationwide, black and Hispanic fourth-graders are only half as likely as white students to be on grade level in math.
To accelerate our progress and ensure that it reaches every child, we must replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with a strong law that invests in what’s working and improves on what’s not. A new law should empower state and local decision makers – including school leaders, superintendents, and state officials – to develop their own systems for measuring and improving schools. It should push states to reduce testing without sacrificing clear, comprehensive information for parents and educators. And it should guarantee that steps are taken to help struggling students and schools.
Progress in Supporting College and Career-Readiness for All Students
Across the country, the hard work of America’s students and educators is paying off. Our high school graduation rate is the highest ever reported, at 81%. Reading and math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, across all student subgroups, have also increased, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). More students are earning college degrees than ever before, and college enrollment of black and Hispanic students is up by more than 1 million students since 2008.
We are also seeing remarkable progress in states that have embraced bold action to prepare students for college and careers. For example, Kentucky was among the first states to adopt college- and career-ready standards. It was also among the first to receive flexibility from the onerous, one-size-fits-all approach of NCLB in exchange for state-led reforms that raised expectations for every student and targeted resources to better support locally designed interventions in its lowest-performing schools. Kentucky is seeing results. Its graduation rate has increased in recent years to 87.5% – above the national average. And the percentage of high school graduates demonstrating success on the state’s measures for readiness in college and careers has nearly doubled.
By replacing NCLB with a more flexible law, we can continue and spread this kind of progress, while maintaining guardrails and protections for the most vulnerable students and directing federal resources toward what works in helping all children learn. All children should have an equal opportunity, and all schools should have the support, funding, and resources they need to improve student outcomes. Federal policy should also recognize and reward high poverty schools and districts showing improvement based on progress and growth.
Much Work Remains to Ensure Equity and Opportunity for All Students
Despite the advances we’ve made, much work remains to ensure that every child in America has the opportunity that he or she needs and deserves.
While many low-performing schools – including those eligible for federal Title I funds to support students in poverty – are improving, and disadvantaged students in all schools are making progress, achievement data underscore how important it is that we continue to focus attention and resources on further helping these schools and students.
Crisis in the Lowest-Performing Schools: Even with the progress we’ve made, comparing the percentage of students nationwide performing at grade level (“proficient”) on state assessments in the lowest-performing 5% of Title I schools to all other public schools reveals vast gaps. For example, in our lowest performing 5% of elementary and middle schools, only 36% of students have reached grade level proficiency in reading compared to 67% in all other schools, a gap of 31 percentage points. The average gap in math proficiency is 36 percentage points. In other words, across the bottom 5% of Title I schools, about two-third of students do not meet grade level standards, but in all other schools, the reverse is true: two-thirds of students reach proficiency. In half of the states, the gap in math proficiency between the lowest-performing 5% of Title I schools and all other schools is more than 35 percentage points. These low-performing schools, approximately 3,000 elementary and middle schools serving more than a million students across the nation, are in crisis.
Students who attend low-performing high schools– Title I-eligible schools that are among the lowest-performing 5% of high schools or have graduation rates of less than 60% –graduate on time at an unacceptably low rate: 40%. Students in all other high schools graduate on time at a rate of 87%, an average rate nearly 50 percentage points higher than what we see in our lowest performing schools. And in over a dozen states, the graduation rate gap is even larger between the most challenged schools and all other high schools.
Disadvantaged Students in Other Schools: While the crisis in low-performing schools contributes to significant achievement gaps in all states, we also know that disadvantaged students often fall behind in higher-performing schools. This includes low-income, black, and Hispanic students as well as students with disabilities or with limited English proficiency. Often disadvantaged students in these schools are denied access to rigorous coursework, or are not held to the same high standards as other students. While 37% of high school students are black or Hispanic, they represent only 27% of students enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course, and a mere 18% of students receiving a qualifying score of 3 or above on an AP exam. That is why it is critical that we identify schools that are failing any group of students and expect tailored actions in those schools to improve student outcomes.
The most recent results of the NAEP show extremely large gaps in student achievement across categories of race, income, disability status, and English learner status in every state. For instance, the percentage of fourth grade students scoring at or above proficient in math is well over 50% for white students. But for black students and Hispanic students, it is 18% and 26%, respectively. Some states have achievement gaps that exceed 40 percentage points. Federal policy must ensure that we provide support to narrow these gaps and improve low subgroup performance wherever it exists, even in our highest-performing schools.
Leading States and Districts Show the Potential for Progress
While we have much work to do, we know it is possible for even the most challenged schools to change course and dramatically improve student achievement. Educators, local and state leaders, and other stakeholders are joining together to achieve success with results-driven, commonsense reforms to help ensure that every child in this country has the opportunity for a high-quality education. Through these efforts, states and local communities are:
- Raising standards for teaching and learning to align with real expectations for success in college and careers;
- Providing resources to adapt curriculum and instruction and to support great teaching;
- Focusing on improving student outcomes, especially for those students who are furthest behind, by rejecting labels of failure based on a single snapshot and instead identifying schools that are showing improvement and closing achievement gaps, recognizing progress and growth over time, and responding accordingly;
- Supporting dramatic change to accelerate student achievement, close gaps, and turnaround persistently low-performing schools that aren’t providing students with the education they need to succeed in college and a career.
- Creating comprehensive systems to support great teaching and school leadership that integrate pre-service preparation, recruitment, induction, multi-measure evaluation systems, personalized development and feedback, and career advancement for all educators; and
- Identifying innovative approaches to teaching and learning, based on evidence of what works and what can work better for their schools.
In states and school districts across the country, we are seeing remarkable progress. For example:
- Closing Achievement Gaps in New Mexico: New Mexicohas used flexibility from NCLB mandates to move from a pass/fail accountability system to a letter grade system that provides educators and parents with clear information about their schools’ performance, identifies students that are struggling, and targets greater supports toward those students. These reforms continue to emphasize accountability for student performance, including an enhanced focus on subgroup performance, while also encouraging schools to promote student success on indicators of college and career readiness. Last year the state saw an 8% increase in the number of AP exams taken, and a 5% increase in students scoring a 3 or better. Additionally, between 2009 and 2013, the achievement gaps between white and Hispanic students on the NAEP math assessment decreased by 4%.
- Tennessee Achievement Rising for Students:Tennessee's “First to the Top” legislation created conditions for significant improvement in the state's public schools, setting clear educational priorities that helped it become the fastest improving state in the nation on the NAEP in 2013. These reforms were incentivized and supported by Tennessee’s $500 million Race to the Top grant, awarded in 2010. With the opportunity to invest in meaningful changes for kids, Tennessee raised expectations with higher standards and assessments, enhanced data systems to improve instruction, supported teachers and leaders with strategies to increase teacher effectiveness, and created a leading-edge local turnaround effort in the Achievement School District. For example, Tennessee fourth graders scored seven points higher in both subjects between the 2011 and 2013 NAEP, propelling the state from below average scores to a level of performance on par with national results. Results from the 2013 NAEP also showed progress among nearly all student demographic groups compared to 2009 data.
- Higher Performance in Washington, DC: Bolstered by $75 million in Race to the Top funds, DC Public Schools, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education for the District, and 29 public charter organizations came together to support the implementation of college- and career-ready standards, build a stronger pipeline for effective teachers and leaders, and create conditions to support and attract those educators to DC’s persistently low-achieving schools. Results from the 2013 NAEP for DC Public Schools showed significant progress since 2011 in reading and math in both 4th and 8th grades – the most significant of all 21 districts that participated in the urban district NAEP. When viewed over a longer period of time, DC’s progress is even more pronounced. Since 2003, fourth grade scores have increased by 24 points on the NAEP math assessment, and eighth grade performance has increased by 17 points.
- Ten Years of Growth in Denver: Over the last decade, Denver Public Schools has increased its on-time graduation rate for black and Hispanic students by 60%, increased college enrollment by 25%, and transformed from the district with the lowest rate of academic growth among major districts in Colorado to the highest for three years running. Denver accomplished these feats by raising expectations for students, overhauling its system for supporting educators, creating robust public school choice options for all families through a portfolio of traditional, charter, and innovation schools, introducing a student-based budget that leveled the funding playing field between schools, adopting a multi-measure school performance system, and investing in extensive community engagement and school climate initiatives.
President Obama’s Vision to Strengthen Our Schools
The President stands ready to work with Congress to advance astrong, bipartisan reauthorization of NCLB that helps to prepare all students for a globally competitive economy by:
- Holding all students to high expectations that set them on a path to graduate from high school ready for success in college and a career.
- Helping states ensure that all students succeed by targeting additional supports and interventions to the lowest-performing 5% of schools, schools that are not preparing groups of students for success, and high schools where too many students do not graduate on-time..
- Working with states to reduce unnecessary testing to make sure teachers and students have maximum time for learning and to place sensible limits on testing, following the lead of states like New York, which limits the amount of time spent on state-mandated testing to no greater than 2% of total classroom time. This also means helping states and localities rigorously review their tests and eliminate those which are outdated, repetitive, low-quality, or unnecessary.
- Encouraging states to allow for greater creativity in the classroom and more time for a balanced curriculum that includes arts, history, foreign languages, financial literacy, music, physical education and after school enrichment.
- Investing in the expansion of high-quality preschool so that all children arrive in kindergarten ready to learn.
- Making sure that all students have an equitable opportunity to succeed, including access to excellent resources – teachers and principals, rigorous coursework, and a continuum of community services and supports to meet the needs of the whole child.
- Supporting teachers, principals, and paraprofessionals with better information, preparation, development, support and recognition, including additional resources, and opportunities to advance in their roles. We should also ensure that the best teachers are serving the students who need them most.
- Providing significant incentives and support for states, school districts and nonprofit organizations to innovate with new ideas and then identify and expand what’s working.
Our nation’s elementary and secondary schools are improving, with students learning more and with more students graduating. But, there is still much more that must be done to ensure that every child receives a quality education. That’s why the President wants to replace NCLB with a new law that addresses the overuse of standardized tests, raises expectations for all students and schools, and gives every kid a fair shot at success. Federal resources must be directed toward what works and toward those communities and students that need them most. We cannot afford to ignore our lowest-performing 5% of schools, our schools where subgroups of students are not making progress year after year, and our high schools where far too many students do not earn a diploma.