No Child Left Behind: A Classic Case of the Failure of Central Planning in Education

November 21, 2013

By Hannah Fjeldsted

It has been twelve years since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was passed by Congress as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965 and signed into law by President George W. Bush. As originally implemented, NCLB requires 100% of American public school students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014. As the fateful year approaches, it is clear that NCLB’s ambitious goal of universal proficiency in math and reading is impossible to achieve and imposes unrealistic disciplinary measures on non-compliant schools.

Before NCLB, there was great concern among the American educational community about the widening achievement gap between students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. As such, NCLB aimed to achieve 100% proficiency in math and reading to close the gap and ensure that a quality education is available to all American students. NCLB measures proficiency by students’ scores on standardized tests.

All public schools that receive federal funding are expected to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014. A school is considered to be meeting AYP if its standardized test scores are increasing in the direction of full proficiency, although it is up to the states to set the yearly benchmarks for that progress. For example, 81% of students at a given Virginia school were required to pass state reading tests and 79% had to demonstrate proficiency on state math tests in 2010 to make AYP. The following year, those required percentages increased to 86% and 85% respectively.

As if it were not burdensome enough for schools to meet AYP’s ambitious proficiency requirements on the macro level, they must do so on the micro level as well. NCLB classifies public school students into subgroups, including the economically disadvantaged, Asian Americans, the disabled, Native Americans, African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, and those who are learning English as a second language. Each subgroup within a public school must also fulfill or exceed the AYP standards determined by the state government. If even one group does not live up to these standards, NCLB designates that entire school as failing to make AYP – an unreasonably ambitious benchmark.

Under this rigid definition, schools that would otherwise be considered respectable or high-quality have been classified as “failing” just because one group of students did not score high enough on some standardized tests. For example, Rachel Carson Middle School in Virginia is considered a “failing” school, even though more than 60 graduates of that school were admitted to the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2010. Carson also had an overall passing rate of 98% in English and 95% in math in 2011. In addition, Mission High School in California is considered a “failing” school, even though 88% of the graduating class was accepted to college in 2012.

NCLB’s sanctions on “failing” schools are unworkable as well because, rather than foster stronger academic performance, they simply incentivize states to lower their proficiency standards. If a school’s standardized test results mark a failure to meet AYP standards, that school is placed on a list for improvement for the first year. If that failure continues for a second year, the school given a Choice School Improvement status and must allow students to transfer to another school in the same district. After a third year of failing, a school receives a Supplemental Services School Improvement status, where is it required to provide tutoring services to students. After a fourth consecutive year, a failing school receives a Corrective Action Improvement status, where it must replace some of its faculty and curriculum, or work with outside experts. If a school fails for a fifth year, it must reopen as a charter school, or let an educational management organization completely take over.

To escape these harsh punishments, some states have lowered the test scores required for a student to demonstrate proficiency on a standardized test. According to a study by the Department of Education, 15 states decreased their proficiency standards in fourth- or eighth-grade math or reading between 2005 and 2007.

As such, NCLB’s 100% proficiency goal is unrealistic both in theory and in practice. Consequently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have applied for waivers from AYP’s rigid requirement because they cannot handle the pressure that it places on their schools, administrators, and teachers. So far, 42 states have been granted waivers. In the face of such widespread exemptions, what’s the point of keeping this mandate on the books?

NCLB is yet another classic example of federal overreach that sets overly ambitious goals, creating unintended consequences across the country. If we truly want to improve the education of our children, we should rather embrace local control to allow parents and teachers the freedom to tailor teaching to students’ unique needs.

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