It is no simple task to judge a law, particularly one that was enacted after a year of intense bipartisan negotiations in which everyone involved gave up something they cared about. The deal they reached, letting the states set many of the benchmarks, was imperfect from the get-go.
About half of the participants in NJ’s survey declined to give letter grades to the individual components of No Child Left Behind, saying that state implementation was so varied that nationwide judgments were impossible. The experts’ struggle to assess the law mirrors the statute’s own contradictions which labels schools as “blue ribbon” or “failing” even though its report cards miss broad components of learning and despite the fact that states have learned to game the system.
Nevertheless, participants were in striking agreement on what worked and what didn’t. Based on their assessments, NJ rendered its own judgment of the law’s individual components—positive, mixed, and negative.
THE RESULTS IN BRIEF
Of the seven objectives that NJ identified, the experts considered the law’s spotlight on student achievement its only success.
Collectively, they found no net positive effect from any of No Child Left Behind’s primary goals:
• The law did not achieve its defining goal—accountability—but it spurred states and school boards to rethink how they assess and run their education systems. Some called this an achievement in itself.
• The law failed to close the achievement gap between well-off white children and minority or low-income students. But that goal was always more of an aspiration than a realistic objective.
• No Child Left Behind was an outright failure at ensuring teacher effectiveness. Its certification requirements were ineffective; but, at minimum, it focused educators on evaluating teachers.
• On perhaps its most basic goal, improving overall student performance, the law did not dramatically boost students’ scores, but neither did it inhibit their progress.
NJ identified three secondary goals of No Child Left Behind. The experts considered these less important, but many saw them as key elements in achieving one or more of the primary goals.
• The spotlight on student achievement is the law’s one undisputed success. The intense focus on students’ reading and math proficiency within different subgroups is the game-changer that will endure into the next chapter of education policy.
• Observers hotly debate the law’s effect on research and data. Some experts told NJ that the more frequent use of data has made a big difference in helping schools understand student progress. Others said that the data don’t add up to a coherent picture of student achievement.
• No Child Left Behind failed to improve school choice. Children stuck in failing schools still have little, if any, chance of transferring to better ones.
Full disclosure: NJ’s own measuring tool misses some of the education law’s key achievements. It does not fully capture the jump in public awareness about student achievement and teacher credentials, and it doesn’t reflect the impact of the state-led effort to craft Common Core achievement standards, a direct reaction to No Child Left Behind.
(Mixed results) ACCOUNTABILITY
Assessments Consistent, But States Game the System
The goal behind the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act was simple: Show parents and teachers whether schools are teaching children to read and write, and hold the schools accountable if they aren’t. The law grades schools based on how well they are progressing toward those goals. Test data are broken out by race, gender, and other socioeconomic factors.
No Child Left Behind got about halfway there in getting schools to account for the achievement, or failure, of their students. We know a lot more than we did 10 years ago about students’ math and reading abilities. As states have implemented annual standardized tests in reading and math for children in grades three through eight, assessments have become more consistent. Because schools report scores by subgroups, administrators can no longer hide behind their top students to mask the failing ones.
The mandated assessments have prompted a flurry of kindergarten-12 activity at the state level. All states now have academic standards and sophisticated devices for measuring student progress. Before No Child Left Behind, only a smattering of states had such programs in place.
But the law fumbled its measurement and enforcement mechanisms. It allowed states to create their own assessment tools, thus fragmenting the system and making it impossible to tell from state to state how students were performing. School administrators supplanted the initial goal of boosting student achievement with a more benign one—simple regulatory compliance. Achieving compliance became a paper game to jerry-rig the benchmarks so that more schools could meet them.