Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Federal

Researchers Ask Whether NCLB’s Goals for Proficiency Are Realistic

By David J. Hoff — November 22, 2006 4 min read

While some leaders in Washington may believe that the No Child Left Behind Act is almost perfect, researchers who took part in a recent conference here suggest it’s more like a rough draft of a term paper that needs major rewriting.

The nearly 5-year-old federal law sets unattainable goals that all students demonstrate proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014, and it doesn’t give schools the support they need to reach those goals, according to education researchers who presented papers at the Nov. 13-14 gathering. The Campaign for Educational Equity, based at Teachers College, Columbia University, sponsored the event.

The law will be unworkable “unless we jettison the demand that all children be proficient,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington. “We can not have a single standard … that simultaneously challenges students” at all levels of achievement.

While Mr. Rothstein said he would like to see the NCLB law repealed, others at the conference said many of its key elements could be retained as long as the law’s achievement goals are reachable, and the schools failing to reach them are given adequate support to meet them.

“If you are going to set targets, you have to look around and say, ‘How do we know this is achievable?’ ” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

The researchers’ beliefs are a marked contrast to the assumptions of top federal policymakers who will play a central role in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, which Congress passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in 2001.

In a session with reporters in August, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings described the law as “99.9 percent pure,” likening it to Ivory soap, whose longtime advertising pitch declared the product “99 and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure.”

Although the secretary has sought to make implementation of certain provisions of the law easier for states and districts, she has said she won’t bend on the goal of universal proficiency by 2014.

“It’s an absolute necessity that we achieve 100 percent proficiency,” David L. Dunn, Ms. Spellings’ chief of staff, said at a separate panel discussion, in Washington on Nov. 16.

The Democrats expected to lead the House and Senate education committees in the new Congress—Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, respectively—also are firmly behind the goal of universal proficiency in reading and mathematics.

“There’s absolutely no appetite … to revisit the 2014 target,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, who responded to the presentations of Mr. Rothstein and Mr. Linn at the Teachers College conference.

Mind the Gaps

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law next year. An overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which encompasses a host of federal programs in K-12 education, the law set the goal of universal proficiency and created an accountability system that monitors schools and districts to ensure students are making adequate yearly progress—or AYP—toward reaching proficiency by 2014.

Instead of universal proficiency, participants at the Teachers College event said, lawmakers should consider focusing on one of the law’s other goals: closing the gaps in student achievement that exist between most racial and ethnic minority groups and whites.

“How do we provide a meaningful educational opportunity for [minority] kids?” said Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, a project of Teachers College intended to analyze policies affecting poor and minority students. By doing so, the country would make progress toward 100 percent proficiency, he said.

Mr. Linn suggested that the law could set goals for AYP that are based on experiences of schools that demonstrate dramatic achievement gains. For example, such goals could be based on the achievement levels and growth in schools with the top 20 percent of achievement growth, he said.

The current AYP targets have “become increasingly unrealistic,” he said. “As we get closer to 2014, you’re going to have all schools failing to reach AYP targets.”

In addition to calling the law’s achievement goals unreasonable, another researcher said the law fails to address problems in schools where large percentages of students are failing to progress toward proficiency.

In requiring that AYP results for schools be published, the law assumes that schools with persistent academic problems are going to figure out a way to turn around, either on their own or with assistance from their districts or states, said Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

But education leaders at the local and state levels don’t have the tools they need to fix their academic programs, so whatever plan they devise “is the same thing [they’re currently doing] with a different name on it,” he said.

“You better have the ability to fix the worst cases, or the policy loses credibility,” Mr. Elmore said. “I think that’s where we are now.”

Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute said at the New York City event that the commitment to complete proficiency might wane as the deadline of 2014 nears.

By then, the attitude might become that 100 percent proficiency “was a nice aspirational goal, but it needs to be revisited,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Researchers Ask Whether NCLB’s Goals for Profic

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Project Manager (Contractor)
United States
K12 Inc.
Elementary Teacher
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools
Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Elementary Teacher - Scholars Academy
Madison, Wisconsin
One City Schools

Read Next

Federal Biden Signs Executive Order to Boost Food Benefits for Children Missing School Meals
The order is designed to extend nutritional benefits that his administration says would benefit children.
2 min read
The Washington family receives free meals at Dillard High School amid the virus outbreak and school closings on March 16, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A family receives free meals at Dillard High School amid the coronavirus outbreak and school closings on March 16, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Brynn Anderson/AP
Federal How Biden's Data Mandate Could Help Schools Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis
An executive order directs the Education Department to collect data on issues like whether schools offer in-person learning.
4 min read
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, in the State Dinning Room of the White House, on Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington.
President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, at the White House, on Jan. 21.
Alex Brandon/AP
Federal Early Education Department Appointees Have Links to Jill Biden, Teachers' Unions
President Joe Biden's 12 appointments have links to the players who could exert the most influence on the new administration's K-12 policy.
4 min read
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hug as they arrive at the North Portico of the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hug as they arrive at the North Portico of the White House on inauguration day.
Alex Brandon/AP
Federal Biden Launches New Strategy to Combat COVID-19, Reopen Schools
The president plans a more centralized strategy that includes broader vaccine efforts, more data on the pandemic, and new school guidance.
5 min read
Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Public School 95 in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn is one of many schools in New York ordered to close due to a flare-up of coronavirus cases in the area on Oct. 5, 2020.
Kathy Willens/AP