Pink slips for principals and teachers. School-funded tutoring for poor kids. Schools are increasingly looking at those kind of consequences for failing to raise math and reading scores.
The federal No Child Left Behind law says that by the 2013-14 school year all students must pass state tests in these subjects.
About half of the states have steady annual goals for increasing the percentage of students passing, or working at their proper grade level. But the other half set the bar very low early on, and starting about now expect big annual achievement gains, according to a report being released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.
Educators liken the latter strategy to a balloon payment mortgage, in which home owners have a final payment that is much larger than previous ones.
It's unlikely that states that took that approach can make the kind of gains expected, said Jack Jennings, the center's president.
Schools face consequences
Schools that don't hit testing benchmarks for two years in a row or longer must do things like provide tutoring, transport kids to better-performing schools or replace staff thought to be a part of a school's problems.
Nearly 11,000 schools, or a little more than 10 percent of all public schools — from elementary to high school — have missed their state-set progress goals and are taking corrective steps, according to the Education Department.
That number has been rising slowly and is expected to grow at a faster clip over the next few years.
Ellen Forte, who consults with states on education issues, said she worries that states and school districts are going to have trouble finding the money and personnel to make the required changes. School budgets nationwide are facing cuts because of the downturn in the economy.
"We're going to tap out the resources states have to serve schools, especially if we're identifying so many,'' Forte said.
Ohio is among the states that set very incremental gains early on but now is hoping for big increases in the percent of students passing the tests.
Mitchell Chester, Ohio's former senior associate superintendent who is now Massachusetts' education commissioner, explained what officials there were thinking when they set about complying with the 2002 federal education law.
"Our best hypothesis at the time was that it would take Ohio schools a while to adjust their approach to instruction and improve curriculum,'' he said. "That was the reason we adopted an approach that looked for more incremental progress in the early years of the 12-year trajectory and steeper progress in the later years.''
Goal seen as unrealistic
Chester said he worries that the pressure states face to get all kids passing the tests by 2013-14 is keeping state education officials from making those tests harder.
"I think that the 100-percent proficiency target actually becomes a disincentive for states to raise academic standards,'' he said.
Jennings said many state officials saw the 2013-14 goal as unrealistic and likely to be changed, so they just put off the law's effects.
Efforts to revise the No Child Left Behind failed in Congress this year, and the 2013-14 goal remains in place. That means, eventually, that even states that expect schools to make gradual gains will find a lot of schools falling short of the 100-percent mark in six years, Jennings said.
However, he added that scores are up on state tests across the country, and having an end goal is probably part of the reason. "Unless you have a deadline, people put things off so there is some purpose in having a goal,'' Jennings said.
But it should be more realistic, says Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank.
"To say 100 percent is just silly, and it creates frustration in the education system. Educators look at that goal and say, 'These people must be kidding,''' Petrilli said.
Parents want results now
Even if educators have that view, parents don't, says Kerri Briggs, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
"They would like their kids to be on grade level now and not 50 years from now, not 20 years from now, but this year,'' Briggs said.
Briggs also noted that the law had reasonable exceptions.
For example, the reading scores of newly arrived immigrants don't count. Schools also are allowed to exclude test scores when a racial group is too small to be statistically significant, and when students' privacy could be jeopardized. In addition, students with disabilities may be given easier tests than those given to other students.
There is one other way schools can avoid the penalties associated with missing benchmarks under No Child Left Behind: If schools miss annual testing goals but show they have reduced the number of kids failing by 10 percent from the previous year, they can avoid penalties. They also must make progress in another area, often attendance.