Griffin Memorial School in Litchfield, N.H. had 91 percent of its elementary students score proficient or better on the state's reading exam last fall, placing it among the top 10 schools in the state. But by state and federal standards, Griffin is considered "in need of improvement," just like all 17 schools in neighboring Nashua.
"[It] just doesn't make sense," Litchfield Superintendent Elaine Cutler told the Nashua Telegraph. "It's not a logical sequence of events. We all want to do better and continuously improve, but it is never enough."
The "in need of improvement" label has also been attached to Nashua's schools based on Adequate Yearly Progress reports by the state Department of Education. In compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must meet annual benchmarks set for state-mandated standardized tests. Schools that don't meet goals for two consecutive years are deemed "in need of improvement," followed by a series of intervening initiatives like transferring students to a higher performing school, offering tutoring, replacing staff or even closing the school.
But the targets for performance on state exams keep rising, until all students are proficient in math and reading by 2014, making it increasingly difficult to meet or exceed goals. Officials call the federal labels "misleading," the Nashua Telegraph reports. Bicentennial Elementary School was considered "in need of improvement," despite having 91 percent of students scoring proficient or better on state math exams.
In all, more than 70 percent of New Hampshire schools failed to make AYP in 2012, but Commissioner Virginia Barry says the numbers do not accurately portray school performance.
"This is ample evidence that the accountability system is broken, not that the vast majority of schools in New Hampshire are failing," Barry said in a statement Tuesday. "In New Hampshire, we need an accountability system that rewards the great schools and accurately identifies those schools and districts that need our support."
The score-label dichotomy in Nashua reflects the frustrations of schools nationwide. Norma Butler Bossard Elementary School in Miami was consistently rated an "A" by the state and students regularly earned high scores on state exams. While the school's students managed overall annual goals, English learners and the economically disadvantaged didn't hit those marks. Schools are held accountable for the performance of every student group -- minorities, English learners and the poor. The school falls out of compliance with NCLB if any of those groups do not meet annual targets.
As increasingly more Florida schools earned "As" on the state's report cards, fewer schools were meeting NCLB requirements. Just 10 percent of Florida schools met AYP last year.
In New York, an unprecedented 1,325 schools were identified for improvement in November. Of those, 847 were newly identified, numbers well above the previous year's 102 schools that were then newly identified for improvement.
To lessen the strain of a one-size-fits all approach to student assessments, the Education Department has issued waivers to 11 states, allowing them more freedom from the law. States that seek waivers from the Obama administration are required to adhere to a measurement, curriculum and assessment plan proposed during the application process. An additional 26 states and Washington, D.C. have applied for waivers. New Hampshire is not one of them.
Even so, some states are still trying to further lessen the emphasis on standardized tests. Virginia's state Senate voted to pass a bill in January that scales back statewide tests for 3rd graders -- cutting history and science from the list and only requiring English and math exams to allow teachers to focus on improving proficiency in those subjects.
The move by the Virginia Senate comes after a draft of a Republican bill would eliminate the federal requirement for statewide science testing. The draft legislation, introduced by House Republicans led by Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Education Committee, marks a reversal of provisions under NCLB, which requires science testing at least three times -- once each during elementary, middle and high school.
"No Child Left Behind is broken and we need to fix it now," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement last March. "This law has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed."