Duncan, who appeared for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, is the former head of Chicago Public Schools--a school district that has failed to meet yearly No Child Left Behind AYP standards for five years running.
Questioned by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) about AYP standards, Duncan said it is unfair to label an entire school as “needs-improvement” just because one subgroup of the students does not meet the standards.
“To label a school itself as a failure -- an entire school -- because one child in one subgroup didn’t hit a mark or didn’t hit a bar, to me there’s a lack of a sort of pragmatic logic behind that,” Duncan said.“(I)f individual children need additional support and additional tutoring, let’s do that, let’s make sure the medicine fits what is going on there, let’s not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school or to a school community where that doesn’t make sense.”
AYP standards are determined by each state. Each school district in that state must meet the standards set for math and reading, on tests administered annually to certain grade levels. For each school district as well as each school receiving federal tax dollars, 95 percent of the students must take the test, and a certain percentage must demonstrate proficiency in the two subjects.
That percentage must rise each year as each school progresses toward meeting No Child Left Behind’s goal of having 100 percent of U.S. public school students proficiency in math and reading by 2014.
Duncan presided over the Chicago Public Schools as superintendent from 2001 until 2008, when he was picked by Obama to be the next secretary of education.
According to progress reports from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Chicago district failed to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” in mathematics and reading each year from 2004 to 2008.
In AYP evaluations, even if a school or district meets overall student proficiency in math and reading, each subgroup -- White, Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, Multiracial/Ethnic, Limited English Proficiency (LEP), Students with Disabilities, and Economically Disadvantaged (ED) -- must also meet the AYP goals.
Chicago's record is checkered -- in certain years, the school district met AYP standards overall, but failed because one subgroup or more did not meet the required measurement.
For example, in 2006, overall, 58 percent of Chicago students met the AYP reading standards, and 59.7 percent met the AYP math standards. However, only 20.2 percent of Chicago’s “Students with Disabilities” subgroup met the state reading standards, and only 22.9 percent met the math requirement -- both far below the percentage needed for the district to make the AYP goal.
In 2008, however, only 60 percent of students overall in the Chicago Public Schools met the AYP standards in reading -- below the 62.5 percent goal for that year. Five of the subgroups also failed in math, reading, or both.
Duncan, meanwhile, acknowledged to senators that there are benefits from the No Child Left Behind AYP process.
“What I do really respect about what has happened in the past is we have to disaggregate data; we have to look at subgroups," Duncan said. "We can’t hide behind the aggregates and sweep children under the rug who historically have not been frankly served well.”
However, he advocated moving away from the standards-based model of No Child Left Behind and concentrating on a “growth model” for schools -- a way, he said, to bridge the gap between a school failing AYP standards and thus being considered substandard.
Duncan also praised teachers who improved the education of students and spurred them on to improved scores, regardless of AYP test results.
“The best teachers in the world take kids who are very far behind and accelerate their rate of growth. They may not hit an absolute target that year, but those teachers are not failures,” Duncan said during the hearing. “In fact, they’re actually heroes.”