by Victoria Young
What is it about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that makes it such a bad law? And how is it that it remains the overriding – education reform directing – law of the land?
The architects of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), for which NCLB is a bogus reauthorized version, wrote a law focused on addressing the facts they knew and understood; unequal access to quality learning opportunities were real, limited opportunities led to an “achievement gap,” and that gap between high and low academic performance was widest in high-poverty, high-minority communities. Exactly what we hear said today!
You might also hear it said that ESEA did not work to improve schools, but, it was in the decade that followed this law that our country saw the most significant narrowing of the “achievement gap” ever! That improvement was then erased as the states began adopting the outcome-based (test-based) theory of reforms prior to NCLB. The theory sounded good, until we saw it fully in action.
In addition, the adoption of NCLB added to public confusion because of the use of standardized tests in a federal accountability system.
Since 1996, our government has analyzed gap scores based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been randomly administered since 1969. Most experts do not have a problem with the random use of this standardized test and are not asking that it be changed. To monitor educational trends, it serves the purpose.
The real problem occurred on a national scale when NCLB became the first reauthorization of ESEA to mandate yearly-standardized tests, for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, in order to establish a national accountability structure requiring the labeling of schools based on standardized test scores.
This differs from the original law that stipulated the use of “appropriate objective measurements of educational achievement” be used to judge the effectiveness of all programs and projects federally funded to meet the needs of “educationally deprived children.” That isn’t testing every child every year. It is providing accountability for results specific to the children being aided by the law. Big difference.
Bottom line, we had tests to judge the achievement gap without the federally mandated – inappropriate and excessive – standardized tests we now bear the burden of because of NCLB. In addition, states were already using standardized tests at “check points” in their system such as at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades and finding that sufficient. We didn’t need more tests to tell us what we already knew.
So as this big change in federal law came about in 2001, experts such as Monty Neill of FairTest were left facing “the difficult task of explaining how NCLB hurts schools instead of helps them” with the essence of it being that NCLB “uses flawed standardized tests to label schools as failures and punish them with counterproductive sanctions.”
And in Neill’s 2003 article, “Making Lemonade From NCLB Lemons,” he accurately predicted that the test-based accountability plan of NCLB would;
- promote bad educational practices and deform curricula in significant ways,
- lower, not raise, standards for most students,
- lead to further devaluing of non-tested subjects like social studies, music, and art,
- turn large numbers of schools, particularly those serving low-income children, into test-prep programs,
- punish the teachers who choose to work in the nation’s most under-resourced schools, and,
- foster the inaccurate view that most of the nation’s public schools are failing.
In 2003! It would appear that the “unintended consequences” were actually foreseeable. And suggestions began to pour in about ways to improve No Child Left Behind.
Not to get away from accountability, but to address it properly, the Forum on Educational Accountability was formed and brought concerned organizations together over the issue. They first released their suggestions in a joint statement in 2004.
By 2009, they had over 100 organizations signing the recommendations and they had refined their message including suggestions such as “ESEA shall provide funds to enable schools, districts, and states to develop high quality formative and summative assessments in the various subjects, as well as other indicators to provide evidence of improved student learning and school quality.”
By 2011, there were 156 organizations supporting the proposals. Meanwhile, Congress did not act and the country never heard the conversations even when clearly expressed by Secretary of Education Duncan who stated that NCLB “…incentivized the wrong behavior among some educators who put standardized testing ahead of a well-rounded curriculum. Rather than driving reform at the local level, NCLB fed long-standing frustration with federal over-reaching.”
But questions remain unanswered; why is No Child Left Behind still the law of the land and its test-based premise still the guiding principle of education reform policies across the country?
We the People need a clear response.
Victoria M. Young is a long-time advocate for excellence in education, a practicing veterinarian, and mother of two college graduates from Idaho’s land-grant university. She is the author of The Crucial Voice of the People, Past and Present: Education’s Missing Ingredient.