President Barack Obama declared this week that four of five public schools could be labeled as "failing" this year under the No Child Left Behind Act if Congress does not take action to rewrite the law.
"That's an astonishing number," he said Monday at a Virginia middle school. "We know that four out of five schools in this country aren't failing."
Obama's terminology wasn't quite right, though. There is no "failing" label in the No Child Left Behind Act. And schools that do not meet growth targets – aimed at getting 100 percent of students proficient in math, reading and science by 2014 – for one year are not subject to any intervention.
Those unable to do so for two or more consecutive years are considered "in need of improvement." The consequences then become stiffer each year, starting with offering students an opportunity to attend another school, and escalating if the targets remain unmet.
For those schools, there's at least the implication of failure, and that's one reason Obama says the 2001 law needs to be changed. There are many ways for a school to fall short of its requirements, even if most of its students are improving and succeeding. A school where all but one group of students are considered proficient in reading, science and math would be lumped into the same category as schools where no students are proficient in those subjects.
The Department of Education says the number of schools that fail to meet the annual proficiency goals could jump from 37 to 82 percent this year. That would include schools that have not met the requirements for just one year.
"Everyone knew this day was coming," Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said. "Now that it is upon us, we need to have an open, honest debate about the consequences of a law that could label four out of five schools as failing."
Education experts interviewed by The Associated Press said it was reasonable to expect some increase as the 2014 proficiency deadline nears, but that it's misleading for the administration to say the law would label all these schools as "failing." They also question the magnitude of the projected jump, saying it seems too large.
"That's a huge difference," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Over the history of NCLB, that percentage has not moved so much. So why would it suddenly more than double?"
Officials say part of the increase is driven by states that waited to raise their student proficiency levels until the final years before 2014. Loveless said there is merit to that claim, but he questioned why the Department of Education doesn't back up its assertion by releasing a spreadsheet showing, state by state, how often and to what degree that has occurred.
"Even then, they are making assumptions about how the kids are going to score this year and they haven't taken the test," he said.
Patrick McGuinn, an education professor at Drew University, said it is reasonable to project an increase in schools not making adequate yearly progress, but that it would be difficult to project by how much.
He noted that schools have a safe harbor provision that allows them to be held out of the "needs improvement" category if they are showing progress, and they also could ask for waivers. Hamilton said that provision was taken into consideration in the department's calculation.
Granting the waivers, however, would take pressure off Congress to do a full reauthorization this year. McGuinn suspects there are political purposes behind the administration's dire tone.
"They're really trying to highlight this and use it as a prod for Congress to get moving," McGuinn said.
Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush when the federal law was implemented, said she estimated half of schools would fail to meet federal standards this year, and she suggested all the conjecturing was demoralizing to educators.
"It's obviously a political tactic," she said.