December 31, 2003

Bush School Reforms Penalize Diverse Schools, Study Finds

LOS ANGELES — Thousands of schools are falling short of Washington’s new standards, not due to faltering achievement overall, but because their student diversity triggers federal sanctions more readily than schools serving less varied children, according to a new study.

The No Child Left Behind Act, championed by President Bush and approved with bipartisan support almost two years ago, tries to pinpoint schools that fail to boost achievement. Over 3,000 of California’s 7,669 schools were deemed “needing improvement” by Washington’s standards this fall.

But the new study reveals that schools serving more than one student subgroup - whether in suburban or urban areas - face longer odds in reaching federal growth standards, even when achievement levels are identical.

Middle-class high schools serving just two student groups, such as white and learning-disabled children, were one-fifth more likely to meet growth targets than schools serving two additional groups. Overall achievement levels were quite similar between the two sets of schools.

“We discovered hundreds of suburban schools that the feds have penalized, schools that are improving but guilty of enrolling diverse children,” said John Novak a statistician at the University of Southern California who coauthored the study.

The new findings will likely fuel an already enflamed debate over the efficacy of President Bush’s intensively regulated efforts to reform America’s schools. Almost one in seven students nationwide now attends school in California.

Diverse elementary schools in low-income areas outperformed schools serving more racially isolated students (schools with fewer subgroups) in reading. But the more diverse schools were 30 percent less likely to hit growth targets and be subjected to federal sanctions.

To pass Washington’s muster all schools must test 95 percent of each subgroup - disabled students, ethnic groups, those with limited English or from low-income homes. Failing just one of upwards of 20 separate targets brings federal sanctions, first allowing parents to choose another school and later replacing school staff if performance remains flat.

“Washington’s good intentions have gone awry,” said Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor and co-author of the study. “The odds of flipping a silver dollar and getting three tails in a row are simply lower than flipping one tails.”

The study was conducted by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an institute based at Stanford and the University of California.

Return to the Frontpage