On March 17, 2005, 15-year-old Delusa Allen was shot in the head while leaving Locke High School in Los Angeles, sending her into intensive care and eventually killing her. Four months before that several kids were injured in a riot at the same school, and last year the district had to settle a lawsuit by a student who required eye surgery after he was beaten there. In 2000, 17-year-old Deangelo Anderson was shot just across the street from Locke; he lay dead on the sidewalk for hours before the coroner came to collect his body.
Violent crime is common at Locke. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, in the 2003-�04 school year its students suffered three sex offenses, 17 robberies, 25 batteries, and 11 assaults with a deadly weapon. And that's actually an improvement over some past years: In 2000�01 the school had 13 sex offenses, 43 robberies, 57 batteries, and 19 assaults with a deadly weapon.
Sounds unsafe, doesn't it? Not in the skewed world of official education statistics. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are supposed to designate hazardous schools as "persistently dangerous" and allow their students to transfer to safer institutions. But despite Locke's grim record, the state didn't think it qualified for the label.
Locke is not unique. In the 2003�04 school year only 26 of the nation's 91,000 public schools were labeled persistently dangerous. Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia proudly reported that they were home to not a single unsafe school. That would be news to the parents of James Richardson, a 17-year-old football player at Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington, D.C., who was shot inside the school that very year. It would be news to quite a few people: The D.C. Office of the Inspector General reports that during that school year there were more than 1,700 "serious security incidents" in city schools, including 464 weapons offenses.
Most American schools are fairly safe, it's true, and the overall risk of being killed in one is less than one in 1.7 million. The data show a general decline in violence in American public schools: The National Center for Education Statistics' 2004 Indicators of School Crime and Safety shows that the crime victimization rate has been cut in half, declining from 48 violent victimizations per 1,000 students in 1992 to 24 in 2002, the last year for which there are complete statistics.
But that doesn't mean there has been a decline at every school. Most of the violence is concentrated in a few institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 1999�2000 school year 2 percent of U.S. schools (1,600) accounted for about 50 percent of serious violent incidents--and 7 percent of public schools (5,400) accounted for 75 percent of serious violent incidents. The "persistently dangerous" label exists to identify such institutions.
So why are only 26 schools in the country tagged with it?
The underreporting of dangerous schools is only a subset of a larger problem. The amount of information about schools presented to the general public is at an all-time high, but the information isn't always useful or accurate.
Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, now three years old, parents are seeing more and more data about school performance. Each school now has to give itself an annual report card, with assessment results broken down by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and English-language proficiency. Schools also are supposed to accurately and completely report dropout rates and teacher qualifications. The quest for more and better information about school performance has been used as a justification to increase education spending at the local, state, and national levels, with the federal Department of Education alone jacking up spending to nearly $60 billion for fiscal year 2005, up more than $7 billion since 2003.
But while federal and state legislators congratulate themselves for their newfound focus on school accountability, scant attention is being paid to the quality of the data they're using. Whether the topic is violence, test scores, or dropout rates, school officials have found myriad methods to paint a prettier picture of their performance. These distortions hide the extent of schools' failures, deceive taxpayers about what our ever-increasing education budgets are buying, and keep kids locked in failing institutions. Meanwhile, Washington--which has set national standards requiring 100 percent of school children to reach proficiency in math and reading by 2014--has been complicit in letting states avoid sanctions by fiddling with their definitions of proficiency.
The federal government is spending billions to improve student achievement while simultaneously granting states license to game the system. As a result, schools have learned to lie with statistics.
Under No Child Left Behind, if schools fail to make adequate yearly progress on state tests for three consecutive years, students can use federal funds to transfer to higher-performing public or private schools, or to obtain supplemental education services from providers of their choice. In addition, schools that fail for four to five consecutive years may face state takeovers, have their staffs replaced, or be bid out to private management.
Wesley Elementary in Houston isn't a school you'd expect to be worried about those threats. From 1994 to 2003, Wesley won national accolades for teaching a majority of its low-income students how to read. Oprah Winfrey once featured it in a special segment on schools that "defy the odds," and in 2002 the Broad Foundation awarded the Houston Independent School District a $1 million prize for being the best urban school district in America, largely based on the performance of schools like Wesley.
It turned out that Oprah was righter than she realized: Wesley was defying the odds. A December 31, 2004, expos� by The Dallas Morning News found that in 2003 Wesley's fifth-graders performed in the top 10 percent in the state on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) reading exams. The very next year, as sixth-graders at Houston's M.C. Williams Middle School, the same students fell to the bottom 10 percent.