Did Help Get Left Behind?
Congress reconsiders a landmark school reform
The throw-up reports started not long after the law was passed: children getting sick before the test, during the test, even right onto the test. It was just one exceptional response to the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Behind the scenes, teachers, administrators, and state officials often fared worse, working late nights and weekends to create and grade the multiple tests the landmark law required.
Five years later, educators and lawmakers are asking whether the stomachaches caused by the legislation have been worth it. Over the next several weeks, congressional committees will hold hearings on the law as they try to decide before it expires whether to reauthorize the act as is, change it, or throw it out.
In some ways, the decision looks easy. Both leading Democrats and President George Bush say they are committed to keeping the law-one of only a few big domestic initiatives produced in the past five years. Further, the two sides appear unanimous on what aspects of the law need to be changed-a consensus that will inform a blueprint for reform scheduled for release this week by the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Commission.
But talk to the nine school districts that have filed a lawsuit challenging the act as an unfunded mandate or to the many newly elected U.S. representatives who campaigned against the law, and you will hear a different story. Every child may have been tested, the critics say, but the real question is: Has every child been helped?
The law was based on the idea that one thing would lead to the other. That's why it requires two tests a year in grades three through eight and one test in high school. And because the results are disaggregated by groups, the government learns not only how well a whole third grade scores; it also learns how the black, white, low-income, and disabled third graders score. If enough students in each group reach a certain level, the school is labeled "adequate." If they don't, the school is required to take remedial measures-consequences that get more serious with every year it fails to meet its goal.
Success stories. The result of all this testing is supposed to be improved performance. Ivan Small, the superintendent of schools in Poplar, Mont., tells one success story for that model. The law's requirement to break down test scores by poverty level, Small says, caused him to figure out why his low-income students were underperforming the higher-income ones. His findings, in turn, led him to replace old readers with a whole new literacy curriculum. It also changed the way he thought about homework. "There are multiple families living in a household of two or three bedrooms . ... Is there time or a place for homework?" The answer was often "No," so Small and his staff created an after-school study program.
Centennial Place Elementary School in Atlanta has also benefited from NCLB.The school had been collecting data even before the law was passed, but it had never separated out special education students. When it did, it found dramatic results. "We had a big gap," says Cynthia Kuhlman, the school's former principal. "Seeing that right there ... was a critical picture for us." The staff started giving these students extra help, reviewing their progress, and holding more parent conferences. As a result, proficiency levels rose from 41 to more than 80 percent.