This month marks the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education law that President George Bush envisioned as his legacy.
Bush signed No Child into law on Jan. 8, 2002, explaining that “the fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.”
The landmark law mandated annual testing in reading and mathematics with the ultimate goal of all students reaching a “proficient” level by the 2013-14 school year. Schools had to reach escalating target scores to prove “adequate yearly progress” or risk a failing label.
Districts had to sort out scores by students’ race, ethnicity and other characteristics, so schools could no longer mask low-performing students. Thus began a frenzy of standardized testing that turned many of America’s classrooms into drill-and-kill laboratories in which anything not on the test fell to the wayside.
Schools that reported jumps in their annual test scores earned headlines, parties and visits from beaming governors. Those that did not suffered failing labels and falling morale.
Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in percentage of schools each year that did not make AYP. In the latest report, 2010-11, roughly half of the nation’s schools failed to reach their goals. But because states could set their own baseline for proficiency, there are wide variations from one state to the next in how well schools are meeting their targets.
“The percentage of schools not making AYP varies from a low of 11 percent in Wisconsin to a high of 90 percent in Florida, ” said Brian Stecher, associate director, RAND Education, and co-author, “How Federal Education Policy Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Can Support States in School Improvement.”
The pressure on schools to meet testing targets fueled a cheating scandal in Atlanta that is the nation’s largest ever, implicating nearly 200 educators and costing taxpayers millions in investigatory and legal fees. The state recently completed its review on cheating in Dougherty County, finding blatant examples there of score tampering.
And there is evidence that the cheating that besmirched Atlanta’s reputation also occurred elsewhere in the country.
Indeed, some of the impressive results in Houston schools — the so-called Texas miracle — on which Bush modeled No Child turned out later to be an illusion, in part because schools dramatically undercounted their dropouts.
Because the anniversary is looming, I am getting lots of statements on the law and its impact, most offering a mixed review of its effectiveness. I listened Tuesday to a panel by RAND Corporation education experts. I will write about the panel later this week, but the consensus was that the law was effective in directing attention to previously ignored students, but that it was too proscriptive and overly reliant on multiple choice testing that narrowed instruction.
But one group that sees little benefit from No Child is FairTest, which has issued a report maintaining the controversial law “failed badly both in terms of its own goals and more broadly” and led to a decade of “educational stagnation.”
Among the report’s contentions:
- NCLB failed to significantly increase average academic performance or to significantly narrow achievement gaps, as measured by NAEP. U.S. students made greater gains before NCLB became law than after it was implemented.
- NCLB severely damaged educational quality and equity by narrowing the curriculum in many schools and focusing attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure. These negative effects fell most heavily on classrooms serving low-income and minority children.
- So-called “reforms” to NCLB fail to address many of the law’s fundamental problems and, in some cases, may intensify them. Flawed proposals include Obama Administration waivers and the Senate Education Committee’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill
“NCLB undermined many promising reform efforts because of its reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools,” explained FairTest’s Lisa Guisbond, the new report’s lead author. “A decade’s worth of solid evidence documents the failure of NCLB and similar high-stakes testing schemes. Successful programs in the U.S. and other nations demonstrate better ways to improve schools. Yet, policymakers still cling to the discredited NCLB model.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog