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September 5th, 2008
Testing: No Child Left Behind
NCLB: Its Origin, Impact & Future

“No Child Left Behind had ambitious goals of promoting services and educational opportunities for all children. In that sense it was a very important piece of legislation. It eliminated any sense that some children could not and should not be educated to the levels of all children. Now, the dilemma is what happened in the implementation. And we now know that we walked a very long mile between the vision and the reality.”
– Sharon Lynn Kagan, Associate Dean for Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind is President George W. Bush’s signature domestic policy initiative – a sweeping education law aimed at improving our public schools. NCLB, as the law became known, passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. Hailed as a landmark follow-up to President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, NCLB strengthened Title I – the program targeting billions of federal dollars to education for poor children, with the goal of closing the “achievement gap” between rich and poor, white and black. Or, as Bush famously said, challenging the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In addition, the law placed an unprecedented emphasis on accountability – requiring states to develop a set of standards for what every child should know and learn in reading and math. To measure that knowledge, NCLB made the education system more reliant on testing than ever before: mandating that every student from third to eighth grade (and one high school grade) take a state test every year – a total of approximately 45 million annual tests.

Why so many tests? One of the backbones of NCLB is strict accountability – something educators and legislators agreed was lacking in America’s schools. One of its more concrete goals was lofty; by 2014, every student must be proficient in reading and math. Those schools that do not meet the standards face federal intervention.

Since its passage, NCLB has become what is arguably one of the most unpopular pieces of education legislation ever passed. A public opinion poll, conducted by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International (an education organization), found that nearly six out of 10 Americans who are familiar with NCLB believe it has had no effect on schools, or a negative effect.

Criticism from lawmakers and educators is widespread, and sometimes fierce. Among the most commonly echoed charges: the legislation has been underfunded, it has focused too much on standardized testing, and its most admirable goals have been bogged down in complex details.

NCLB’s defenders say that the law has pumped billions of federal dollars into America’s schools, and that rising test scores are evidence of its success. Despite this claim, there’s no concrete evidence to support the idea that NCLB has made an appreciable mark on student achievement. Why? Under the law, states are required to set their own standards. To avoid penalization, some states have been charged with deliberately setting low standards – or gaming the system.

Under NCLB, states also have little incentive to develop tests that go beyond the multiple choice format – raising the charge that our system is creating generations of “bubble kids.” A recent survey by Education Week reported that 42 percent of students are now taking state reading and math tests that are entirely multiple choice – a format that saves both time and money.

States across the country have also joined the chorus of criticism against NCLB. Most recently Connecticut did so in court, filing suit against the federal Department of Education contending that NCLB is an unfunded mandate. More specifically, the state charges that the government has failed to fund all the tests the law requires.

Still, the Bush administration had hoped that Congress would reauthorize NCLB this year. Debate over the legislation, however, has left it floundering. And any changes to the law, which many legislators have proposed, are not likely to be considered until a new President enters the White House.

On the Presidential campaign trail, Sen. Barack Obama vows to overhaul NCLB – dubbing the law “No Child Left Behind Left the Money Behind,” and “Students Left Behind.” Obama believes that while the goals of NCLB were admirable, it’s been inadequately implemented by the Education Department, and has failed to markedly improve student achievement.

Sen. John McCain supports NCLB, but also promises to make changes. Chief among them: using growth models to measure student achievement, abandoning sanctions for underperforming schools, and moving away from the 2014 proficiency deadline.


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