The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act has been languishing for years, and Congress may now end up rewriting the law to fix its many flaws.
In 2002, the law was enacted as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with the intent of setting high standards for students and holding schools accountable to meet measurable success.
However, it’s now been discredited to the point that almost all states now receive waivers that allow them to miss key elements of the law without any punishments.
So where did it go wrong?
1. High-stakes testing
Before the vocal outcry over Common Core testing, people spoke out against the high-stakes tests of NCLB. In fact, NCLB testing is really the father of Common Core testing. NCLB required all students in third through eighth grade to take annual tests in maths and reading.
In doing so, the law ushered in a new era of testing linked to punishments that didn’t exist before the law was enacted in 2002. These punishments come in the form of less funding or closures for schools that don’t make progress towards proficiency on annual exams.
Opponents of NCLB argue the increased testing has created an environment where teachers teach to the exam.
“Just as importantly, there is no evidence that any test score increases represent the broader learning increases that were the true goals of the policy — goals such as critical thinking; the creation of lifelong learners; and more students graduating high school ready for college, career, and civic participation,” the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder wrote in a memo in February.
And more concerning, the policy center noted that the annual tests rolled out through NCLB haven’t done very much in closing the education gap — the main goal of NCLB.
2. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
NCLB’s annual tests were supposed to track the annual progress of students in reading and maths proficiency. The testing results are displayed on publically disclosed school report cards — another result of NCLB — for parents, administrators, and lawmakers to see.
“If their school is not making adequate yearly progress and has been identified as needing improvement, corrective action or restructuring, No Child Left Behind requires that districts notify parents and offer options [like transfering schools],” according to the USDOE.
The problem with this, according to critics of NCLB, is that the consequences of not meeting AYP are extremely punitive.
Corrective action and restructuring can mean less funding for schools that don’t meet AYP and proficiency requirements, but are in dire need of funding for basic programs. It can also lead to outright school takeovers by the state government.
And opponents think this produces lopsided punishments, directed at only certain players in the system.
“Holding teachers accountable but excusing the policymakers who fail to provide necessary supports is as harmful and illogical as holding students accountable but excusing poor teaching,” the NEPC argued.
Additionally, perverse incentives are created when progress is based solely on test scores. This can lead teachers and administrators to ensure their schools have good testing results at all costs.
“Some things they do will be good, in line with the objectives. Others will amount to cheating or gaming the system,” Columbia University professor Jonah Rockoff told the New York Times on Tuesday.
3. Every student proficient by 2014
In 2002 when NCLB law was written it mandated that, “Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001-2002 school year, all students … will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievements on the State assessments …”, in essence requiring that all states have 100% proficiency by 2014.
The problem with this stipulation is two-fold, according to critics of NCLB.
First, states’ proficiency levels and standards were subjective under NCLB. This allowed for a situation where 50 different measures of proficiency among the 50 states could exist.
Critics call this a “race to the bottom.” “…in order to avoid having their schools labelled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom instead of a Race to the Top,” President Obama said in a speech about NCLB in 2011.
Second, 2014 has come and passed, but universal proficiency has not been achieved. This has forced the federal government to provide waivers to states that allow them relief from complying with NCLB stipulations. As of November 2014, 43 states and the District of Columbia had been granted waivers.
These problems with No Child Left Behind will surely be addressed soon, as its reauthorization is slated for sometime this year.
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