Because low achievement led to sanctions, some school districts did everything they could to avoid letting the true story of their failures come out. “Very few stepped up and said, ‘Whoa, we’ve really got to do things differently here.’ They were managing it. That’s why they were pushing the kids so hard, teaching to the test,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the law’s authors.
To ensure that some federal teeth survived in the state-determined assessment system, the law’s authors inserted a 2014 deadline by which all public-school students should be at grade level. Schools that don’t achieve that goal face punitive consequences. Under that measure, more than 80 percent of the nation’s schools could be labeled as failing next year.
That looming measurement of overwhelming failure offers the best example of where the accountability feature of No Child Left Behind crumbled. “Failure” was only supposed to occur in isolated instances and was supposed to signal to states and the federal government where they needed to intervene with more management—and, importantly, more money.
The federal money didn’t materialize, and states skirted their interim proficiency targets by tinkering with their standards. “Expectations, in the form of state-set standards and assessments, were too varied and, for the most part, too low,” said Kati Haycock president of the Education Trust, an education-reform group.
The law inserted, a new device—the prospect of penalties—into five decades of K-12 policy; the result was curricula that closely focused on easily measurable outcomes. “Tests become high stakes when we attach sanctions,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado (Boulder). “We see the now-familiar signs of goal displacement—narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test, cheating, etc.”
The harshest critics of No Child Left Behind say that the proficiency requirements are both meaningless and restrictive. “No Child Left Behind established unrealistic targets, failed to provide schools with resources to meet those targets, and labeled and punished schools based on flawed indicators,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.
The law’s defenders acknowledge these shortcomings, but they stand by its central premise that schools should face consequences when their students aren’t functioning at grade level.
“Yes, we can get a new speedometer. I’m not opposed to that. But will it close the achievement gap in and of itself? Hell, no. It just moves the goalposts,” said Margaret Spellings, who as Bush’s Education secretary helped to implement No Child Left Behind. “If it’s just information for information’s sake, that’s a nothing burger. It just is.”
(Mixed results) ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Gap Remains, but Educators Now See It
The law’s name alone spotlights its fundamental goal of bringing all children up to grade level, regardless of race, disability, or poverty. Those who fall behind are supposed to get supplemental services to help them catch up. If their school can’t provide those services, students should have access to one that can.
When No Child Left Behind was being written, black and Hispanic students lagged far behind white students in reading and math. They still do, although the achievement gap has narrowed slightly in some areas, according to the Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. Hispanic eighth-graders this year nudged 2 points closer than they were in 2009 to white students’ scores in reading.
The disparity is still big. Hispanics’ scores of 252 in reading are now 22 points lower than their white peers’ scores of 274. If the 2-point gain doesn’t seem like much, consider this: It equals the improvement that Hispanics made from 1992 to 2009.
Leaving aside the comparison with whites, minority students have made dramatic improvements over the past two decades. Math scores among African-American fourth-graders and Hispanic fourth-graders are up three full grade levels since 1990. In reading, both groups have advanced about one grade level higher since 1992. Among eighth-graders, Hispanics and blacks advanced more than two grade levels in math and one grade level in reading. It isn’t clear, however, that No Child Left behind had much to do with those improvements.
The education law can claim a major, if somewhat disquieting, success in letting people know just how far behind some students lag. “No Child Left Behind was enormously successful in spotlighting the significant, persistent achievement gaps at the school, district, state, and national level,” said Patrick Riccards, who heads ConnCAN, an education-reform group in Connecticut that has inspired sister chapters in several other states.