No Child Left Behind

Updated Sept. 19, 2011

Click here for a more recent version of Education Week’s primer of No Child Left Behind (updated 2015).

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed into law by President Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the central federal law in pre-collegiate education. The ESEA, first enacted in 1965 and previously 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 NCLB legislation set in place requirements that reached into virtually every public school in America. It expanded the federal role in education and took particular aim at improving the educational lot of disadvantaged students.

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

  • Annual Testing: By the 2005-06 school year, states were required to begin testing students in grades 3-8 annually in reading and mathematics. By 2007-08, they had to tests students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school. The tests had to be aligned with state academic standards. A sample of 4th and 8th graders in each state also had to 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 were required to bring all students up to the "proficient" level on state tests by the 2013-14 school year. Individual schools had to 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 failed to meet the target two years in a row, it would be provided technical assistance and its students would be offered a choice of other public schools to attend. Students in schools that failed to make adequate progress three years in a row also were 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 were required to 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 had to be "highly qualified" in each subject he or she taught. Under the law, "highly qualified" generally meant that a teacher was 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 had to be "highly qualified." By the end of the 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.

  • Reading First: The act created 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 sought to help states better prepare 3- to 5-year-olds in disadvantaged areas to read. The program's funding was later cut drastically by Congress amid budget talks.

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

Given its scope and detail, the No Child Left Behind Act was the source of considerable controversy and debate in the education community. As the law’s effects began to be felt, some educators and policymakers 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 study Policy Analysis for California suggested that, because of its requirement to evaluate school progress on the basis of demographic subgroups, the law might disproportionately penalize schools with diverse student populations (Public Agenda, 2003; Policy Analysis for California Education, 2003).

Concerns about the law grew, particularly concerning its rules surrounding adequate yearly progress and the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2013-14. Traditionally high-performing schools made headlines as they failed to meet their set rates of improvement, and states saw increasingly high rates of failure to meet the rising benchmarks. By 2010, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress, up from 29 percent in 2006.

Spotlight on No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as part of his campaign to get Congress to rewrite the law, issued dire warnings that 82 percent of schools would be labeled "failing" that year. The numbers didn't turn out quite that high, but several states did see failure rates over 50 percent (McNeil, Aug. 3, 2011).

The law allowed states to set their own annual benchmarks, provided they reached 100 percent proficiency by 2012-13, and some simply refused to raise their benchmarks any further or requested waivers from the rules. In the summer of 2011, Mr. Duncan promised to create a waiver option for all states, though it would have strings attached requiring those states to adopt some of the administration's education priorities (McNeil, Aug. 9, 2011). In Congress, meanwhile, members from both parties saw a need to rewrite the law, but agreeing on the shape of a new version of that law was slow in coming (Klein, Jan. 16, 2011; Sept. 14, 2011).

The No Child Left Behind Act has had advocates, with some education leaders expressing 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).

Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2011, September 19). Issues A-Z: No Child Left Behind. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from

Education Trust, "Don't Turn Back the Clock," Letter to Congress, November 2003.
Klein, A. "Duncan, Key Senators Sing Off Same Page on ESEA Renewal" Education Week, Jan. 26, 2011.
Klein, A. "Alexander, GOP Senators Introduce Own ESEA Bills" Education Week, Sept. 14, 2011.
McNeil, M. "Are 82% of Schools 'Failing' Under NCLB, as Duncan Warned?" Education Week, Aug. 3, 2011.
McNeil, M. "More States Asking for NCLB Waivers" Education Week, Aug. 9, 2011.
Mathis, William J., "No Child Left Behind: Costs and Benefits," Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003.
Policy Analysis for California Education, "Penalizing Diverse Schools?," 2003. Posted by Education Policy Studies Laboratory.
Riddle, W., Kober, N., "State Policy Differences Greatly Impact AYP Numbers" Center on Education Policy.
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.