What NCLB Left Behind

, Isabel Mittelstadt, Leave a comment

A recent report released by the American Enterprise Institute reveals both the achievements and failures of the No Child Left Behind Act, while outlining needed changes for future education-based legislation.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002 with bi-partisan support from Congress, relies on a system of standardized testing to determine which schools meet a state-determined proficiency level among students.  The goal is to achieve complete proficiency among schools by 2014, while unfunded punitive sanctions are placed on schools that fail to reach the proficiency threshold each year.

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, nearly 40% of American adults believe the No Child Left Behind Act made “not much difference.”  So, American Enterprise Institute scholars Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor attempt to answer whether “all those standardized tests [were] for nothing.” Their results are mixed.

While Ahn and Vigdor find multiple areas in which the Act could have been improved for maximum effectiveness among schools, “The No Child Left Behind Act did incorporate some praiseworthy design elements,” they said.

For example, under NCLB the proficiency levels of individual groups of disadvantaged students were reported. This prevented “bad academic results [of disadvantaged groups] from being hidden within the aggregate numbers,” the report says.

Also, the study found the “threat of sanctions [was] enough to get schools to use current resources more effectively.” In fact, the threat of sanctions was as effective as using “more costly educational interventions – like class size reductions.”

But despite these potentially effective provisions, Ahn and Vigdor describe several ways in which NCLB could have improved.

First, the report finds that evaluating schools on yearly progress would be more fair and effective than having one state-wide proficiency level required for every school to meet.

“Because so much of the groundwork for mathematics and reading is laid by parent(s) prior to the student’s first day of kindergarten,” the report says, “the school does not have complete control of a student’s proficiency in these subjects.” Therefore, proficiency levels among schools in the same state are bound to vary and some schools will have to work harder than others to meet the same goal.

Measuring progress from year-to-year prevents a school from being “penalized if it is located in a district with students who arrive at school with poor preparation,” Ahn and Vigdor argue.

A value-added system is certainly not without fault, the study concedes. “The emphasis on average gains in the school may defeat the one unequivocally positive development from NCLB, the increased focus on traditionally disadvantaged subgroups,” the report says.

And, since this system relies on more individualized results from each school within a state, a value-added system may be less transparent and more difficult for parents to understand.  But according to Ahn and Vigdor, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Second, the report finds “no evidence that exposure to any of these sanctions improves student achievement.” Because sanctions under NCLB were unfunded, schools on fixed budgets have to cancel other programs to pay for sanctioned programs – like supplemental education for disadvantaged students.

In fact, the only sanction found to be effective was the last one – imposed on schools that failed to meet an Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for more than six years: Restructure.

Ahn and Vigdor found that while the first five levels of sanctions were largely ineffective, when school leaders were replaced and school administration was restructured, a “significant improvement in math test scores” occurred.

Third, the report claims educational legislation should focus on teacher evaluations in addition to test scores.  One school system experienced “significant improvement in subsequent performance” among teachers when they were observed and evaluated by former instructors.

But the report finds NCLB’s most “essential flaw” to be what many Americans protested when the Act was signed into law nearly a decade ago:  NCLB should leave local jurisdictions to design their own sanction regimes, “rather than mandate a series of (ineffective) sanctions,” the report says.

“Permitting schools, districts, and state education agencies to experiment will work best if each of these organizations are led by individuals who think carefully about the design and implementation of education policy,” the report claims.

In other words, Ahn and Vigdor’s biggest lesson learned?  Let those at the state level determine what is best for the state.


Isabel Mittelstadt is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Academia and its sister organization, Accuracy in Media.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.