What You Can Do When Your Child’s School 'Needs Improvement'

By Judy Molland


style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“Did my school make ‘adequate yearly progress?’” It’s the current eduspeak used to refer to the educational improvements required under the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind education reform law. And it’s the big question at this time of year. For some parents, the waiting is over, while for others the answer will be clear within the next few weeks.

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style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">The concept behind “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, is simple:

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style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">• establish clear goals for student learning,

style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">• measure whether students are reaching them, and

style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">• hold educators accountable for raising student achievement. When schools consistently fail to meet expectations, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law requires states to take increasingly strong action to ensure improvement.

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style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">To measure student success, states administer standardized tests to determine whether each student is proficient in language arts and math. The state sets steadily increasing goals for student achievement, with the ultimate goal of all students meeting the state’s standard for proficiency by 2014. If a school’s actual achievement is at or above the state goal in a given year, the school is designated as making AYP. If achievement is below the goal for two consecutive years, the school is designated as “needing improvement.” (Every state has its own standards to determine proficiency, and these vary widely from state to state.)


How many schools will fall short of their AYP requirements? No one can say for sure, but the general consensus is that the numbers this year will be much higher than last year.


Parents Are Asking

With the release of the latest reports on the AYP standing of schools statewide, parents will undoubtedly have questions. Here’s a look at what they’ll want to know:


My child’s school is on the “Needs Improvement” list. What should I do?

For starters, find out why your child’s school is on the list. Each state has its own requirements, and they vary considerably from state to state. For example, it could be that your child’s school has not met the percentage-passing rate for a particular section of the state test. Or perhaps it has met these goals, but has fallen short in a particular “subgroup.” Check the school’s Web site or call the main office for details. School leaders should be prepared to tell you why your school is listed.


What are the “subgroups” referred to in the AYP measurement?

The goal of the AYP formula is to hold all schools within a state to the same standards of student achievement, and to bring attention to achievement gaps between different groups of students. AYP is not only based on overall averages, but also on the performance of subgroups of students, such as low-income students, racial and ethnic minorities, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities. If a school does not make AYP for one of these subgroups, it does not make AYP. (Subgroups must have at least 40 students to count toward AYP.)


What are the consequences of my child’s school being on the “Needs Improvement” list?

The first step is to check and see if your child’s school is a Title 1 school. This is important because while all public schools in the United States receive an AYP rating, the sanctions imposed by AYP are required only of those schools identified as Title 1 schools. Nationwide, 67 percent of all public elementary schools receive some Title 1 money, which is federal funding for students who are behind academically or at risk of falling behind. However, states are permitted to apply the same sanctions to all their schools, if they so choose.


What choices do I have?

If this is the first year that your child’s school is on the list, there are no immediate consequences. But if the school is a Title 1 school that has missed AYP for two years in a row, then it must offer you the choice of transferring your child to a different school within the district. And, if no other schools are available, the school must make an effort to enter into a cooperative agreement with another district to allow a transfer.


If this is the third year that your child’s school is on the list (possible if the state started measuring AYP prior to it being required in 2002), then you are entitled to all of the above, plus supplemental services, such as tutoring, for your child.


tyle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Four consecutive years on the “Needs Improvement” list and your child’s school faces “significant changes in leadership, curriculum, professional development for staff, or other strategies.”

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How do I find out about transfers or tuition?

tyle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">If your child is in a Title 1 school identified as needing improvement, the district is required to inform you about your options. For some parents, dealing with this in person makes more sense and, in that case, you can go directly to the district office, and find out about those options in more detail. If, for example, your child is eligible for a transfer, you will be applying through the district, not through the school. District officials can tell you what other schools in your district are available.

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Can my child’s school be shut down because it is on the list?

tyle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Not this year. As previously noted, Title 1 schools have several years to make improvements before the state takes such a drastic measure. However, after five years on the list, the state can take over the school board, reconstitute the district, set up charter schools or even privatize education.


This “Needs Improvement” label has caused big problems at my child’s school, with parents and teachers feeling demoralized. How is this supposed to help schools improve?

tyle="FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">President Bush and the bipartisan group of congressmen who passed the No Child Left Behind Act believe schools must be held to high standards for all children and face penalties if they fail. The idea is that NCLB will motivate teachers, principals and parents to make sure all students meet the minimum standard.


How does a school get off the list?

A school must make AYP for two years in a row to get off the list.


My child’s school was doing pretty badly for a while, but things are definitely improving. Still, I don’t know if there is any way it can make AYP for at least a couple of years.

The AYP process allows some flexibility: there is a “safe harbor” provision for schools that are making real progress but have not met the state’s goals. If any school or subgroup within a school does not meet the statewide performance targets, but the number of students below proficient is reduced by 10 percent from the previous year, the school still makes AYP. In other words, the law gives credit to low-performing schools that make significant progress, even if they have yet to meet the statewide performance goals.


My child attends a high-performing school, which already has very high test scores. How is it supposed to improve?

AYP stands for adequate yearly progress, not annual yearly progress.  If a school makes great gains in one year, only to fall back slightly in the next year, it will still make AYP requirements as long as it stays above the target performance level.


How are special-education students supposed to meet the same standard as regular-education students?

The idea is that schools should teach special-education students the same curriculum as regular-education students, but teachers may use different strategies, such as smaller class sizes, more one-on-one attention, and more hands-on activities. In addition, each state now has the ability to define what is a “significant cognitive disability.” Students who fit into that category may be given an alternate assessment based on different academic standards.


My child’s school has many students who can barely speak English. Do their test scores count?

It depends. States have the option to exempt from the reading test any newly arrived immigrant student who has been in the country for less than one year. Such students must still take the math test, but their score does not count for measuring AYP. However, these students must take the required assessment of their English language proficiency, and schools must show annual improvements in these tests.


States can also choose to count in the Limited English Proficient (LEP) subgroup for AYP purposes “exited” LEP students for up to two years after they become proficient in English. (Otherwise, as soon as students become proficient in English they leave the LEP subgroup, which prevents that subgroup from ever achieving the ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading.)




ONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Give Kids Good – This site was developed specifically to inform communities and parents about the various provisions of NCLB, including AYP.


National Education Association – Offers several brochures to help parents understand AYP, as well as other aspects of NCLB.


National Parent-Teacher – Provides information on AYP and a general overview of the NCLB law on its “What Parents Need To Know” Web page.


Parent Leadership Associates – This Web site features numerous topics of interest to parents, such as “No Child Left Behind: What’s In It For Parents?”


U.S. Department of – This official NCLB Web site includes a simple overview of the legislation, as well as the answers to frequently asked questions about AYP and other issues.


Judy Molland is a freelance writer, veteran teacher and United Parenting Publications education editor.