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‘No Child Left Behind’ and AYP in Pennsylvania

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, signed into law in 2002, gave the federal government a new, much larger role in K-12 education, with the stated goal of holding public schools more accountable for student achievement. For states to receive federal education funds, the government requires statewide student testing in reading, math, and science for students in public schools (including charter schools), as well as the introduction of an accountability system requiring school improvement on these tests.

Under NCLB, failure to meet targets for test scores in reading and math can trigger significant consequences for the school and the district, as well as new options for families. NCLB also holds schools accountable for the percentage of students that are tested, and which students are tested, in each school.

Each year, states and districts must issue "report cards" with statewide and school-by-school data for all schools, districts and charter schools. Under NCLB, schools must also notify parents about their right to request the qualifications of their children’s teachers. Parents also have the right to know if their children have been taught for four or more weeks in a row by a teacher who does not meet state criteria for being "highly qualified."

Measuring "adequate yearly progress"

NCLB aims to have all public school students scoring at "proficient" or "advanced" levels on state reading and math tests by the school year 2013-14. NCLB holds schools and districts accountable for "adequate yearly progress" toward meeting that goal. AYP is the minimum level of performance that states, school districts, and schools must achieve each year in these areas:

  • the percentage of students who met test score goals (outlined below)
  • the percentage of students who took the tests ("test participation"), which must be 95 percent or higher
  • graduation rates for high schools (in Pennsylvania, the target is 80 percent or improvement)
  • one other measure of school performance, chosen by the state, for elementary and middle schools (in Pennsylvania, schools must have attendance of 90 percent or show improvement).

Testing requirements

Measures of school progress in Pennsylvania have been based on results of the state standardized test in reading and math, known as the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). In the spring, the PSSA will be given to students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 11 (this will be the first year that third graders’ scores count in calculating adequate yearly progress). Beginning in the 2005-06 school year, tests must be administered every year in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading and once in high school. Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, science achievement will also be tested.

In compliance with NCLB, Pennsylvania has set escalating test score targets for schools from 2002-03 to 2013-14.

To make sure schools are held accountable for all students, NCLB requires test scores to be sorted (disaggregated) by "subgroups" to track the performance of the following groups within the overall school population:

  • racial/ethnic groups (Black, Latino, Asian, White, etc.)
  • economically disadvantaged students (eligible for free/reduced lunch)
  • special education students
  • limited English proficiency students.

Any subgroup representing 40 or more students must meet the same goals for test scores and test participation for a school to make AYP. The more such subgroups, the more targets the school must reach to achieve AYP.

Other ways of making AYP

Even at schools that fall short of these test score targets for proficiency, there are other ways of making AYP:

Safe harbor status is a way for a school or district to achieve AYP without meeting the standard achievement targets (in 2004, these targets were 45 percent in reading; 35 percent in mathematics). If a school or subgroup does not meet the performance targets but does reduce the percentage of below-proficient students by 10 percent or more, the sate will consider it to have met AYP for this target area. A school where 90 percent of students are not proficient would achieve safe harbor if it reduced that percentage by 9 or more points.

Confidence intervals may allow schools to achieve AYP when they fall just short of reaching targets for proficiency or safe harbor. The confidence interval is a statistical adjustment made by the state that provides a margin of error to take into account the fact that the students in the tested grades may not be a representative sample of all the students in the school.

Appeals can be filed by schools on one of three grounds: "data error," "special circumstances," and "significant improvement." Schools that have fallen short of their AYP targets, even using safe harbor and confidence intervals, can appeal to the state to be recognized for significant improvement by meeting growth targets on a measure called the "Pennsylvania Performance Index" (PPI), which is sensitive to test score improvements that fall below the proficient level.

The index measures changes in student performance in the "Basic" and "Below Basic" categories. It divides both "Basic" and "Below Basic" into two levels, so that movement within and between these levels can be credited. For example, movement of large numbers of students from "Below Basic II" to "Below Basic I" might be sufficient to count as "significant improvement." Each school and subgroup has its own 2002 baseline PPI score, and growth targets for the performance index are based on the trajectory needed to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

If schools fall short of AYP goals

Schools or districts are designated as needing a level of school improvement or corrective action when they do not meet AYP targets for multiple consecutive years and face escalating levels of consequences. Such schools are required to take certain actions before the beginning of the school year. If a school continues to fall short of AYP goals, NCLB’s consequences for one year and level carry over to the next level and new ones are added. Here are the escalating levels categorizing schools that fail to make AYP targets:

Year 1 of failure to make AYP – "Warning." The school is placed on notice that it has another year to develop its improvement strategies and achieve its AYP targets. The school is not subject to consequences.

Year 2 – "School Improvement I." Officials must develop a two-year school improvement plan. Districts must offer students the option to transfer from the "improvement" school to another public school that isn’t facing consequences. The district pays for transportation.

Year 3 – "School Improvement II." Districts must offer low-income students free tutoring services from a list of approved providers (known as "supplemental educational services").

Year 4 – "Corrective Action I." When a school does not make yearly progress for four consecutive years, the state will place it under a "corrective action plan." The consequences may be changes in the staff or curriculum, lengthening the school day or year, or some other action.

Year 5 – "Corrective Action II." If a school continues to be identified as in need of improvement, it necessitates creation of a new plan to be carried out the following year, including at least one radical change: replacing the staff, converting to a charter, turning over management of the school to the state or a private company, or other major management restructuring. Parents must be involved in decisions about the plan.

Year 6 – "Corrective Action II, second year," also known as "restructuring." If the school still fails to make adequate yearly progress, the plan for school restructuring is to be implemented.

A school identified as "Making Progress" is one that was previously in either school improvement or corrective action but has made AYP for one year. If the school fulfills its AYP requirement for a second year, it will exit the improvement system and will be counted among schools that have "Met AYP." If in the second year it does not achieve AYP, the school reverts to the next level of school improvement or corrective action.


Pennsylvania Department of Education, Bureau of Assessment and Accountability
United States Department of Education

Special thanks to Pennsylvania Public Education Partnership, "’No Child Left Behind’ in Pennsylvania." Published by the Mon Valley Education Consortium, 2004.

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