Issue Report: No Child Left Behind Act

Is the No Child Left Behind education law in America a good policy and worth continuing?

No Child Left Behind was a landmark educational reform in the United States enacted by President George W. Bush in 2001. The legislation creates a set of national as well as state testing standards in math, reading-comprehension, and history.
All schools must bring all students above these standards by 2013.
If they fail to meet certain benchmarks for achieving these goals, the government can impose various sanctions on the school. Since it’s inception, NCLB has been widely debated. Following the election of Barack Obama, the debate became especially prominent once again, with questions surrounding the future of the NCLB law and the US educational system under the Obama administration.

There are many questions in this debate. Are standardized tests generally a good means of education and learning? Are standardized tests a good means of measuring educational progress? Does No Child Left Behind hold teachers accountable? Or, is it unfair to hold individual teachers accountable to test performance? Is this out of their control? Should schools be held accountable in the same way? And, is it appropriate to punish schools that fall beneath these standards? Do these sanctions harm the very schools that need help the most? Does this incentivize schools kicking out underperforming students? Can this worsen socio-economic and ethnic educational gaps? Does it incentivize teachers cheating and modifying test scores? Do standardized tests under NCLB harm teacher morale? Are the general expectations of No Child Left Behind reasonable? What is the balance of pros and cons? Overall, is No Child Left Behind good public education policy?

Student measurement: Are standardized tests a good measure of student learning?

No Child Left Behind offers valuable measure of student progress

No Child Left Behind allows teachers to judge the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of their methods in their classes and with individual students. English Teacher Stephanie Butler said, for instance, “Assessment drives instruction. If I don’t know the weaknesses of my students, how can I know how to best help them? […] I think the statistics need to drive remedies.”[1]

Standardized testing sets useful baseline achievement standards.

It is important that a nation has a general frame of reference on where students should, on average, be at various stages in their educational development. Standardized testing helps do this by setting a baseline level of achievement at each grade. While some students may perform above or below this standard, the important thing is judging the general educational trends across American society, so that we can help guide our national educational system onto a globally competitive path.

Standardized tests poorly measure real student learning

Standardized testing often tests only a very limited range of skills rather than the broad range of skills we would hope our educational system is teaching. Standardized testing focuses largely on memorization, speed of recall, and critical thinking. Yet, a full education entails much more, including creativity, emotional insight, composure and dignity, physical health and an understanding of nutrition, and many other basic human values. NCLB, therefore, does not measure the most important factors in a student’s education and future success and happiness. It is, therefore, useless as a measure of a student and school’s performance.

NCLB testing wrongly assumes all children are the same.

Any system of standardized testing (in order to pass a class) assumes that all students progress at the same rate. But this is not the case. Talented students and un-talented students should not be measured by the same standardized test.

NCLF does not track progress of individual students

"Commentary: No Child Left Behind needs revision". McClatchy. December 11, 2008

“schools should be judged on whether each child progresses from one year to the next, which is called a ‘growth model.’ It asks, did the child’s knowledge and skills grow at least one year’s worth? Are children who are behind getting enough attention to help them catch up? Those are the important questions, not whether this third grade scores better than the previous year’s third-grade class [under no child left behind].”

Learning: Does it lead to improved learning in its broadest sense?

NCLB has succeeded in improving test scores

(NAEP) The Department of Education points to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showing improved student achievement in reading and math resulting from No Child Left Behind.[2]

Standardized tests ensures students learn essential information.

There is some information in the world that is essential to know as a means of communicating effectively and analytically with other individuals in society, whether as a citizen or in the marketplace. Standardized tests help ensure that all students learn this important information. It is true that this information can be cut-and-dry and perhaps even boring, including history, literacy (reading comprehension), and math. Yet, it is, nevertheless, essential, so testing for it and ensuring students know the information is socially and educationally valuable. Yet, it is also true, that this essential information does not constitute all the information that a community may believe their children should know.

Standardized test info is more essential than music and arts.

While music and arts are important, in a globally competitive marketplace they are less important than more essential historical information, reading-comprehension, and math-skills.

NCLB tests what is testable; art and music is not testable.

While music, art, culture, and physical education are important, they are not testable. You can only create a standardized test around information that is common and fairly objective. No Child Left Behind does this, focusing on history, math, and reading comprehension. It cannot be blamed for not testing arts and music. These subjects are not testable. Schools should, however, teach them, and not merely focus on teaching to the NCLB test.

Schools should teach test-information as well as arts etc

"Defending 'No Child Left Behind'". Christian Science Monitor. August 29, 2005

“Teaching to the test. Critics often object that NCLB invites teaching only to the test. But parents can counter this, by pressuring schools to broaden out.”

Standards enables students to integrate well into new schools.

The establishment of statewide standards, instead of city or neighborhood curricula, also benefits students who move between neighboring communities by increasing the odds that lessons learned in one school will generally line up sensibly with lessons taught at a new school for a student. Such educational continuity is valuable.

NCLB encountered some problems due to low funding

No Child Left Behind had some significant problems when it was first implemented under the Bush administration. But this had much more to do with insufficient funding than with any inadequacies of the program itself. Barack Obama recognized as much in the following remark: “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind. Forcing our teachers, our principals and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong. […] We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education.”[3]

No Child Left Behind motivates unfortunate "teaching to the test"

The focus on standardized testing (all students in a state take the same test under the same conditions) as the means of assessment encourages teachers to teach a narrow subset of skills that will increase test performance rather than focus on deeper understanding and life lessons that can be applied in the marketplace, real life, and to citizenship and democracy generally. Because teachers and schools may be punished if they fail to live up to standardized test score goals, they often have a perverse incentive to focus almost entirely on teaching to the test, especially where a school is at risk of being designated as “failing”.

No Child Left Behind over-emphasizes math and reading

Robert Lynch. "No Child Left Behind Act wrongly left the arts behind". The Hill. March 12, 2007

“[Congress] should correct the legislation’s unintended consequences, which include reducing the amount of arts education in our nation’s schools. […] it also requires schools to report student achievement test results for only two subjects: reading and math. With the emphasis on just those two, the arts have suffered. […] A recent national study of the Act’s impact by the Council on Education Policy reveals that a majority of school leaders saw gains in achievement, but 71 percent reported having reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math. Since the passage of NCLB, 22 percent of elementary school leaders surveyed reported a decline in their art and music instruction.”

No Child Left Behind does not inspire a love of learning.

The most important element in education is that students develop a love of learning, so that they seek to learn on their own, outside of school. No Child Left Behind, however, makes learning such a rigid process that it does not inspire such a love of learning, failing the most important test of a good educational system.

NCLB raises standards and testing without improving education

Sandra Nichols. "When NCLB Standards Meet Reality". April 26, 2003

“…having high standards is currently thought to be some kind of magic bullet. Certainly nobody wants low standards. However, merely raising the bar does not make a pole-vaulter able to jump higher.”

No-Child-Left-Behind detracts from the education of the gifted

When the focus of the educational system and teachers is on the standardized average, this detracts from the education of those at the low and high end of educational achievement. The gifted will not be taught to their full potential as a result. This has consequences not simply for these students, but for society as a whole, which depends disproportionately on the cultivation of the best and brightest into tomorrow’s leaders.

NCLB gets teachers to over-focus on those just below passing

Because No Child Left Behind makes passing tests such a central priority, teachers don’t have much of an incentive to spend time helping those that are already likely to pass nor those that are highly unlikely to pass (it would be wasted energy). The greatest bang-for-the-buck for teachers under threat from NCLB penalties is to focus on students that are just below the passing grade. This is unfortunate because every child should be given equal attention to grow regardless of their abilities.

No Child Left Behind increases dropout rates.

NCLB creates a perverse incentive for schools to encourage poor-performing students to dropout and leave (because it may be necessary for a school to avoid being labeled “failing”). It also creates an environment in which some students may become discouraged by their continually poor performance on tests, and in which “teaching to the test” provides too little stimulation to other important interests that a student may have, such as music.

Accountability: Does NCLB make teachers and schools more accountable?

NCLB testing helps reveal and change failing teaching methods.

The focus of testing is to provide a clear indication teaching methods that are working and ones that are not. No Child Left Behind allows this, making it possible for teachers to adjust their methods accordingly.

No Child Left Behind fosters accountability in public schools

Claudia Wallis, Sonja Steptoe. "How to Fix No Child Left Behind". Time. May 24, 2007

“NCLB proponents and critics alike agree that the law’s greatest accomplishment has been shinning an unforgiving light on such languishing schools and demanding that they do better.”

NCLB has safeguards for schools that are failing despite proficiency.

Gives school districts the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency, even for subgroups that do not meet State Minimum Achievement standards, through a process called “safe harbor,” a precursor to growth-based or value-added assessments.

No Child Left Behind draws, keeps, motivates good teachers

"Fact Sheet on the Major Provisions of the Conference Report to H.R. 1, the No Child Left Behind Act". United States Department of Education

“Strengthening Teacher Quality […] H.R. 1 asks states to put a highly-qualified teacher in every public school classroom by 2005. The bill also makes it easier for local schools to recruit and retain excellent teachers. […] H.R. 1 will consolidate smaller programs within the US Department of Education. The bill also creates a new Teacher Quality Program that allows greater flexibility for local school districts. […] In addition to specific funds for teacher quality, H.R. 1 will also give local schools new freedom to make spending decisions with up to 50 percent of the non-Title I federal funds they receive. With this new freedom, a local school district can use additional funds for hiring new teachers, increasing teacher pay, improving teacher training and development or other uses.”

NCLB standardized tests are a poor measure of school performance

Walter Haney. "Evidence on Education under NCLB (and How Florida Boosted NAEP Scores and Reduced the Race Gap". September 8, 2006

“results on NAEP are dubious bases for reaching summary judgments regarding school quality.”

No Child Left Behind reveal nothing new about school performance

Alfie Kohn. "NCLB: 'Too Destructive To Salvage'". Common Dreams. May 31, 2007

“This law is not about discovering which schools need help; we already know.”

Teachers are not necessarily to blame for poor student performance.

Critics of the NCLB requirement for “one high, challenging standard” claim that some students are simply unable to perform at the level for their age, no matter how good the teacher is.

While statewide standards reduce the educational inequality between privileged and underprivileged districts in a state, they still impose a “one size fits all” standard on individual students. Particularly in states with high standards, schools can be punished for not being able to dramatically raise the achievement of a student who has below-average capabilities.

No Child Left Behind does nothing to improve teachers

Alfie Kohn. "NCLB: 'Too Destructive To Salvage'". Common Dreams. May 31, 2007

“according to a recent 50-state survey by Teachers Network, a non-profit education organization, exactly 3% of teachers think NCLB helps them to teach more effectively. No wonder 129 education and civil rights organizations have endorsed a letter to Congress deploring the law’s overemphasis on standardized testing and punitive sanctions. No wonder 30,000 people (so far) have signed a petition at calling the law ‘too destructive to salvage.'”

NCLB damages teacher morale, future of profession

Charles Murray. "Acid Tests". Wall Street Journal. July 25, 2006

“It pushes classrooms toward relentless drilling, not something that inspires able people to become teachers or makes children eager to learn.”

NCLB sets overly restrictive qualifications for teaching.

No Child Left Behind sets highly restrictive qualifications for teaching in schools. This often means that some schools cannot get enough teachers or that good teachers that do not meet NCLB qualifications cannot continue to teach.

NCLB counter-productively punishes teachers/schools

Punishing teachers for the poor performance of students fails to address the main issue; how to better or differently instruct students. Teachers already have the best interests of their students at heart. Punishing them wrongly assumes that this is not the case, or that teachers cannot simply recognize the need to improve their methods if things are not going well.

NCLB ridgedly punishes schools that are progressing, albeit slowly

Many schools are doing a great job and progressing, but are not progressing at the unreasonable pace set by NCLB. They are subsequently punished, despite the fact that they are doing good work.

Teachers want to be held accountable, just not to tests.

While accountability is often considered important among teachers, it is important to consider what teachers are being held accountable for. Many teachers feel they should be held accountable for a more holistic teaching approach, opposed to the kind of test-centric teaching NCLB requires. Teachers want to be accountable for actually educating their students, not merely teaching them how to take a test.

NCLB causes the retention of students in grades to avoid tests.

Because schools and teachers are hyper-sensitive about passing students under NCLB testing, a perverse incentive is created to hold back underperforming students that should pass on to a higher grade simply to avoid the risk that they will take and fail a test.

NCLB causes schools to turn-away most needy students.

No Child Left Behind creates a perverse incentive for schools to deny entry to underperforming students as a means of decreasing the chances that the school will be labeled “failing” and sanctioned as a consequence. This can leave underperforming students with no place to go to school and with no future.

NCLB wrongly cuts funding to the most needy, under-performing schools.

Instead of helping lift-up underperforming schools, No Child Left Behind cuts resources to these schools as a means of punishment, counter-productively ensuring the continued failure of these schools.

NCLB demands too much from schools with worst students, least funding.

No Child Left Behind demands the most improvement from the schools with the least funding and the worst students. This is simply unreasonable.

Teacher cheating: Can NCLB avoid teachers cheating on tests?

Most teachers are honest and will not cheat the system under NCLB.

Teachers will probably not cheat the system, simply out of respect for themselves, their profession, and their students. The system should not, therefore, cave to a minority of teachers that decide to violate the rules. Instead, measures should be taken to ensure that teachers do not cheat and that cheating teachers are caught.

No Child Left Behind motivates teachers to cheat

When teacher accountability is based on test scores, teachers are often motivated to cheat, by modifying student standardized tests so that more pass. This does not help the students and teachers should not be put in this position.

Special-ed: Does NCLB do enough for special-ed children?

NCLB ensures disabled students are not left behind

Bill Byrne. "No Child Left Behind — Really? Why I like this law."

“The fact is that in many, many public schools, kids with disabilities are not learning to read and do math — while the vast majority of them can master these skills with proper instruction. […] No Child Left Behind will short-circuit all of the excuses and explanations. School systems that do a good job with children with disabilities will show their progress, and those that fail to do a good job will have their ineffectiveness exposed. Then parents and voters can make informed decisions about how to get the underachievers on track.”

NCLB flexibly allows disabled to take separate exams

No Child Left Behind subjects disabled to same test standards.

Because No Child Left Behind requires that 100% of students in a school are able to pass, disabled and special-ed students are often expected to pass the same exams as other students. Because many of these students simply cannot pass the same tests, disabled students are set up to fail, and schools with disabled students are set up to fail as well.

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