What ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ really means

Karen Gray

Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, making Adequate Yearly Progress (more commonly referred to as AYP), does not mean a school's students are actually proficient in reading or math? 

You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Every July when Nevada school districts release their test results under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools making AYP are thrown into the spotlight and praised for their students' achievement. 

What many people do not realize is what making AYP actually means: that a public school district or school has met its annual benchmark on its way to achieving the goal of proficiency.  That is not to say that some of the schools' students are not proficient; many are. It is to say that even when a school makes AYP, often a lot more work must be done to make students proficient.

The goal of the NCLB legislation is to get public education to a 100 percent proficiency level by the 2013-14 school year. To achieve that goal, states set progressively higher annual benchmarks of student performance for their schools to meet on standardized tests. If a school's students reach that year's benchmark, the school has made "Adequate Yearly Progress."

Nevada's benchmarks, for the 2007-08 school year, call for 51.7 percent of elementary- and middle-school students to be proficient or higher in English/Language Arts. Schools where this is true make AYP. Likewise, the Math objective for the school year was 54.6 percent proficiency.  For Silver State high-school students, the annual measurable objectives (AMO) for proficiency were set at 82.3 percent (ELA) and 61.8 percent (Math). 

However, there are several ways a school could score below its proficiency benchmark and still make AYP.

One is known in the public-education sector as "Safe Harbor." That's when a school — or a school's student subgroup (there are eight) — can show the Nevada Department of Education that it achieved a 10 percent reduction in its percentage of non-proficient students (and can also meet some other attendance or graduation-rate requirements). If this is the case, the AYP criteria are considered to have been met for that subgroup. And if all subgroups meet the criteria, a school is designated as making AYP.

Another way to make AYP without achieving the annual measurable objective is through "confidence intervals" (CI). Confidence intervals are similar to the margin-of-error calculation that political polls regularly announce. However, while a poll may say its accuracy is "plus or minus 3 percent," Nevada uses confidence intervals that are much larger, such as "plus or minus 13 percent." Then the state education department always applies the interval to the plus side, making as many schools as possible appear as positive as possible.

For instance, under Nevada's proficiency-rate calculator, if 26.17 students* are tested and 9.67* of those are proficient, the subgroup's raw proficiency rate comes out to 36.95 percent, and the school does not meet AYP. In this particular example, involving Gibson Elementary School, the interval produced by the state CI formula was 15.52. Thus, the "adjusted" proficiency rate for this one school or subgroup could be set as high as 52.47 percent (36.95 plus 15.52) or as low as 21.43 percent (36.95 minus 15.52). However, as noted earlier, the state always adjusts the proficiency ratings of appealing schools upward — allowing them to report to parents and the general public that they, too, "made AYP."

Finally, there is a third way Nevada public schools are able to win the AYP designation even when their raw scores don't measure up. It is called "uniform averaging allowances." Recently implemented by the state, it allows schools to take their scores from previous years and average them together to make AYP. Averaging allowances can be used to calculate all AYP criteria — safe harbor, proficiency, attendance and graduation percentages. In cases where proficiency scores are averaged, the confidence interval is also applied to further boost a school's proficiency report — as was done with the Gibson example above.

Last year, the Washoe County School District, which has 91 schools, saw 27 AYP appeals.  Twenty of them were based on the averaging of proficiency scores or other criteria. All the appeals were approved, and 12 of them were critical in allowing schools to report they had made AYP.

The situation was similar for the 335-plus schools of the Clark County School District, where 89 appeals were approved by the Nevada Department of Education. At least 27 percent of the schools made the grade through uniform averaging — and would not have made AYP otherwise.

So, in a few weeks, when the AYP hoopla starts again, keep this in mind: Reports on Adequate Yearly Progress are a matter of manipulating data and crunching numbers — and may not actually equate to any common-sense notion of real student proficiency.

*For those wondering what .17 or .67 students could possibly look like, we note that these numbers are derived from the application of formulae the state uses for performance-measurement purposes.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.