On 10th Anniversary, a Look Back at 'No Child' Legacy

The controversial No Child Left Behind law changed the face of American education.

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George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, which requires students at all U.S. public schools to meet certain math and reading benchmarks, went into effect nearly 10 years ago, on Jan. 8, 2002. Since then, NCLB has been a popular target for politicians, educators, and policy experts as it has become outdated. The legislation was supposed to be rewritten in 2007, but has merely been renewed by Congress for the past several years.

President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have repeatedly attacked the law, going so far as to grant waivers from the law to states who submit alternative accountability plans. Congress took its first real stab at reforming the law in October 2011 as Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, of Wyoming, presented a comprehensive revision to No Child Behind. The Harkin-Enzi legislation looks to be one of Congress's main focuses when it goes back into session later this month.

Laura Hamilton, senior behavioral scientist at RAND Corp., a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says that regardless of what happens with NCLB, the law has changed the public's perception of education.

"It's drawn attention to the idea that we can measure school performance," she says. "It's led states and districts to improve data systems, and I think it will continue to have an effect even if we change how performance is measured."

The main controversy surrounding NCLB is the difficulty schools are having meeting "Annual Yearly Progress" (AYP) math and reading benchmarks—goals that about 50 percent of American schools failed to achieve in 2011. By 2014, all students are expected to be "proficient" in math and reading.

But those proficiency benchmarks were left up to each individual state to decide in 2002, and schools are judged on the percentage of their students who meet those benchmarks, not their year-to-year improvement. That means more schools each year are considered to be "failing" under the law. The 48 percent of schools who "failed" under NCLB in 2011 represented more than double the percentage that failed in 2010.

[Identify the characteristics of underperforming schools.]

"The number of schools failing to make AYP tracks directly with the pattern of increases in states' targets," Brian Stecher, RAND's associate director of education, says. "Many states backloaded the trajectories, increasing targets towards the end ... when targets jump, there's a large increase in the number of schools not making AYP." 

When schools are faced with bringing students up to a certain benchmark, they make sacrifices, says Hamilton. Curricula are narrowed, and educators spend more time "teaching to the test," which means less time for subjects other than reading and math. Even in those subjects, corners are cut, Hamilton says. Instead of reading novels, a high school class might spend time reading short passages and completing multiple choice comprehension assignments.

[Learn why multiple choice exams are used on high-stakes tests.]

Stecher, RAND's associate director of education, says NCLB's effects have been a mixed bag for education in the country. "There have been some good features of the law: Focusing on accountability has been beneficial," he says. "But the focus on multiple choice testing led to a lot of bad behaviors and the kind of instruction we don't want to encourage."

Others are more candid with their criticism of NCLB. In a report released Tuesday, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, called NCLB a "policy failure" that led to a "lost decade for educational progress."

"Because of its misguided reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools, it has undermined many education reform efforts," the researchers wrote.

The idea of accountability, RAND's Hamilton says, is a good one, but there should be more measures of accountability in any revised NCLB bill. In a recent paper, Hamilton and other RAND researchers advocated broadening the scope of NCLB to measure achievement in more subjects and to measure factors such as student satisfaction, health, high school graduation rate, SAT scores, and honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses taken.

"We need to find ways where you could continue to have a system of accountability that doesn't lead to [curriculum] narrowing," Hamilton says. "We don't want kids to be tested for 20 hours, but we need to have a dialogue to start thinking about how we can expand the measures tested."

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