Nearly every — if not all — Iowa school district will get a failing grade from the U.S. Department of Education this year.
That's not to say students, teachers, administrators or school boards are any worse than they have been in the past.
It's just getting harder to make the grade. And Iowa officials, unlike those in 42 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, haven't been able to convince the federal government they deserve a break.
“It's good to remember that Iowa's not alone in this,” said Ann Hyslop, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation. “What it means for schools that haven't been on the list before, well, not too much.”
But, Hyslop said, for schools that have been on watch and warning lists before, it will have a major effect on how they can spend federal Title I dollars, which go to support programs for poor students, on up to the full-scale replacement of administrators and teachers or closing schools.
“It's extraordinarily important to us,” said Sioux City Community School District Superintendent Paul Gausman. “Those schools that are penalized are going to deal with these negative, punitive actions that really are discriminatory against children in poverty.”
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires continual improvement on standardized tests until 100 percent of the country's public school children are at or above the proficiency level by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
States can apply for waivers to the requirements. Iowa tried in 2012 and was rejected because it does not tie teacher evaluations to student scores.
The state's 2013 education reform package created a task force to study teacher evaluations and make a recommendation by 2016, but it did not require student data be part of evaluations.
Department of Education Director Brad Buck called the U.S. Department of Education to see if this had any effect on the waiver.
“And the answer to that is no,” he said. “The real challenge will be for our districts and individual schools. What we believe, unfortunately, we'll see is more schools being designated in need of assistance or school designated in need of assistance as a result of how this is being played out.”
School districts can take the state standardized tests in fall, winter or spring. Most choose spring because it gives students more time before the assessment.
Gausman, for example, has his students take the tests in early March, as late as he possibly can while still guaranteeing staff will get results the same year. Other school districts might not get results back until summer.
All that data is reported to state and federal departments of education. Shortly after that, notes — required by the law — go home to parents telling them how their child's school fared:
l Schools that don't make “adequate yearly progress” two years in a row are publicly labeled as “in need of improvement” and must develop an improvement plan. Students are given the option to transfer to a better school in their district, if any exist.
l A third consecutive miss forces schools to offer free tutoring and other programs to students.
l Four years in a row, that school gets an “in need of corrective action” label, which could include new curriculum, staff replacement and other measures.
l Schools missing adequate yearly progress for the fifth year have to create a restructuring plan that takes effect if it misses the goal the sixth year. Under this scenario, schools can cede control to state department of education control, turn into a charter or hire a private company to run the school.
“When all of our schools get labeled as failing in the state of Iowa, it's really up to us to explain what that means,” said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association. “It's students inside those buildings and teachers and administrators who are doing very good work.”
Linda Fandel, special adviser for education policy to Gov. Terry Branstad, said it's important the state carry out the education reform program passed in 2013.
“Regardless of how the federal No Child Left Behind law labels Iowa schools, Iowans are committed to giving children a world-class education,” she said.
Illinois and Wyoming are the two other states whose waivers were rejected. Five more states — California, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska and Vermont — didn't apply.
Hyslop said those hoping for changes to the federal law, which might ease requirements or otherwise make it easier for states to get waivers, will likely be disappointed this congressional session.
“No one ever thought (No Child Left Behind) would be around this long in the way it was originally written,” she said. “I've even heard it referred to as a zombie.”
And once the federal government started to offer waivers to the requirements, those that received waivers didn't press as hard for changes to the law.
“They kind of lost interest,” Hyslop said.