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No Child Left Behind

This version was published in 2004. An updated version is available from 2011

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed into law by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the central federal law in pre-collegiate education. The ESEA, first enacted in 1965 and last reauthorized in 1994, encompasses Title I, the federal government's flagship aid program for disadvantaged students.

Coming at a time of wide public concern about the state of education, the legislation sets in place requirements that reach into virtually every public school in America.

As the newest incarnation of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act has expanded the federal role in education and become a focal point of education policy. Coming at a time of wide public concern about the state of education, the legislation sets in place requirements that reach into virtually every public school in America. It takes particular aim at improving the educational lot of disadvantaged students.

At the core of the No Child Left Behind Act are a number of measures designed to drive broad gains in student achievement and to hold states and schools more accountable for student progress. They represent significant changes to the education landscape (U.S. Department of Education, 2001).

  • Annual testing. By the 2005-06 school year, states must begin testing students in grades 3-8 annually in reading and mathematics. By 2007-08, they must tests students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. The tests must be aligned with state academic standards. A sample of 4th and 8th graders in each state must also participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress testing program in reading and math every other year to provide a point of comparison for state test results.

  • Academic progress. States must bring all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. Individual schools must meet state "adequate yearly progress" targets toward this goal (based on a formula spelled out in the law) for both their student populations as a whole and for certain demographic subgroups. If a school receiving federal Title I funding fails to meet the target two years in a row, it must be provided technical assistance and its students must be offered a choice of other public schools to attend. Students in schools that fail to make adequate progress three years in a row must also be offered supplemental educational services, including private tutoring. For continued failures, a school would be subject to outside corrective measures, including possible governance changes.

  • Report cards. Starting with the 2002-03 school year, states must furnish annual report cards showing a range of information, including student-achievement data broken down by subgroup and information on the performance of school districts. Districts must provide similar report cards showing school-by-school data.

  • Teacher qualifications. By the end of the 2005-06 school year, every teacher in core content areas working in a public school must be "highly qualified" in each subject he or she teaches. Under the law, "highly qualified" generally means that a teacher is certified and demonstrably proficient in his or her subject matter. Beginning with the 2002-03 school year, all new teachers hired with federal Title I money must be "highly qualified." By the end 2005-06 school year, all school paraprofessionals hired with Title I money must have completed at least two years of college, obtained an associate's degree or higher, or passed an evaluation to demonstrate knowledge and teaching ability. That requirement is already in effect for newly hired paraprofessionals.

  • Reading First. The act creates a new competitive-grant program called Reading First, funded at $1.02 billion in 2004, to help states and districts set up "scientific, research-based" reading programs for children in grades K-3 (with priority given to high-poverty areas). A smaller early-reading program seeks to help states better prepare 3- to 5-year-olds in disadvantaged areas to read.

  • Funding changes. Through an alteration in the Title I funding formula, the No Child Left Behind Act is expected to better target resources to school districts with high concentrations of poor children. The law also includes provisions intended to give states and districts greater flexibility in how they spend a portion of their federal allotments.

Given its scope and detail, the No Child Left Behind Act has been the source of considerable controversy and debate in the education community. As the law’s effects begin to be felt—particularly with 11,008 schools identified as needing improvement in 2004-2005—some educators and policymakers have questioned the feasibility and fairness of its goals and time frames.

An opinion poll released in December 2003 found that nearly half of school principals and superintendents view the federal legislation as either politically motivated or aimed at undermining public schools. Likewise, a recent study Policy Analysis for California suggests that, because of its requirement to evaluate school progress on the basis of demographic subgroups, the law may disproportionately penalize schools with diverse student populations (Public Agenda, 2003; Policy Analysis for California Education, 2003).

Other education leaders, however, have expressed support for the law’s stringent accountability mandates, characterizing them as vital levers of change, inclusiveness, and transparency of results. The laws’ ultimate effectiveness, some observers have argued, may depend on how closely states and schools stick to its principles of "tough accountability" (Education Trust, 2003; West & Peterson, 2003).

A related controversy has swirled around funding for the far-reaching legislation. Some commentators have argued that federal support for the law is not commensurate with its demands and that compliance may place undue financial burdens on states and schools (Center on Education Policy, 2003; Mathis, 2003). Opponents have frequently characterized the law as an "unfunded mandate."

In response, federal officials have pointed to increases in Title I spending and new money to pay for testing as evidence of the government’s financial commitment to the law. They have also charged that the states have not taken full advantage of the federal funds available to them (Department of Education, 2003). Others have added that the accountability measures prescribed by No Child Left Behind Act may themselves help ensure that education resources are used more efficiently (West & Peterson, 2003).

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

Behind the policy debates, the states have been trudging forward in their efforts to comply with varied requirements the No Child Left Behind Act. In a survey of the states conducted for Quality Counts 2004, Education Week found that, while some are struggling to mesh their existing accountability systems with the federal law, all of the states now rate schools based on whether they are making "adequate yearly progress" under the act. In addition, 43 states are publishing report cards showing test results for each of the student categories required under the law.

One concern highlighted by the survey is whether states will have the capacity to help all the schools identified as missing adequate yearly progress targets. For the 2003-04 school year, 36 states planned to provide assistance to such schools, according to the survey. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia had consequences in place for consistently low-performing schools for 2003-04.

States were also struggling to meet the law’s testing requirements. According to Quality Counts 2004, only 20 states are testing in English and math in the required grades for 2003-04, inching up from 19 in 2002-03.

On the teacher quality front, many states have been trying to develop workable standards for the "highly qualified" teacher requirement. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia now required prospective high school teachers to demonstrate subject-matter expertise by passing a test in the subject they plan to teach, up from 29 in 2000 (Olson, 2003; Quality Counts 2004).

Sources
Education Trust, "Don't Turn Back the Clock," Letter to Congress, November 2003.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In, January 2004.
Mathis, William J., "No Child Left Behind: Costs and Benefits," Phi Delta Kap-pan, May 2003.
Olson, Lynn "In ESEA Wake, School Data Flowing Forth," Education Week, Dec. 10, 2003.
Policy Analysis for California Education, "Penalizing Diverse Schools?," 2003. Posted by Education Policy Studies Laboratory.
U.S. Department of Education, "Fact Sheet: Two Years of Accomplishment with No Child Left Behind," January 2003.
West, Martin R., and Peterson, Paul E., "The Politics and Practice of Accountability," from No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of Accountability, West and Peterson, Eds., Brookings Institution Press, 2003.