As lawmakers debate the merits of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), there is no debate as to how all students have benefitted from the attention this legislation brings to the disparate performance of low-income and minority groups in U.S. schools.
NCLB has been the subject of considerable criticism, some justified. In addressing the law’s shortcomings, however, it is essential to preserve key provisions of the law that have improved outcomes for students most at risk. Specifically, annual testing, public reporting of results by low-income and minority subgroups, and the expectation that schools take action to close achievement gaps have been catalysts for serious efforts to eliminate inequities in education.
In University Place Schools, and across our nation, efforts to comply with NCLB have led to higher student achievement and graduation rates for minority students. For the first time since NCLB required tracking of subgroup performance, Curtis High School graduation rates for minority students surpassed our overall school average of 88.8 percent — eliminating long-standing gaps in these rates.
Both Hispanic students (89.5 percent) and students of two or more races (88.9 percent) outperformed white students (86.8 percent).
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The most significant increase in graduation rate was seen among African-American students at Curtis, where 92.9 percent of students graduated in 2014 — a rate more than 20 points higher than 2003 (one year after Congress last updated NCLB).
Outcomes have also improved for low-income students at Curtis. Since 2002, the free and reduced lunch rate in University Place has nearly doubled from 21.2 percent to 38.2 percent. Graduation rates and student achievement results have increased during this same time period for low-income students.
While gaps still persist for this subgroup at Curtis, the gap is small and shrinking. Our talented, hard-working students deserve most of the credit for these gains, but the focused support given to particular student groups as part of NCLB’s emphasis on closing achievement gaps has also played a key role in our success.
Quality graduation rates in University Place Schools are the result of purposeful action on the part of our entire system. Opportunity gaps revealed by annual testing and subgroup data drove the development of numerous K-12 academic interventions and mentorship programs designed to close those gaps.
Primary students receive intensive, early intervention in reading and math. In grades 5-12, identified students receive additional math and reading instruction daily in intervention courses.
Other programs are designed to provide social and emotional supports. At Curtis Junior and Senior High, teachers volunteer to serve as mentors for selected students in grades 9-12 in the Cougar Mentor and Operation Graduation programs.
Annual testing results required by NCLB help us to determine which students need extra support and what support should look like. It also provides an important check on our graduation rate.
Helping students earn a diploma is important, but only if they can also demonstrate academic proficiency on par with their peers. At Curtis, more than 90 percent of 10th-graders passed the reading and writing portions of the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE) in 2014. These results complement graduation rates and confirm that a CHS diploma means something for kids.
We can continue to debate the quality of state tests and the appropriateness of sanctions imposed on schools when results are poor. But clear, timely and accessible achievement data for all students must continue. As a high school principal, I believe that common sense accountability –based in regular testing — has an important place in a reauthorized NCLB.
Ultimately, graduation and achievement gains are earned by students with the support of loving parents, talented teachers, and dedicated support staff and administrators who are committed to the core principle of No Child Left Behind: that all students should have the opportunity to learn.
I know that our work at Curtis High School and the work of educators all across our state reveal that when students are given equal opportunities, they can and do learn at high levels.
Eric Brubaker is principal at Curtis Senior High School in University Place.