Do you remember taking state tests? When every year in grades 3 through 8 you’d be given a test in english and math? That was a result of legislation passed by President George W. Bush in 2001. Just 3 days after his inauguration, Bush announced his plan for school reform in the form of an 1,100 page document known as the No Child Left Behind Act. You may have heard of this act before, but what does it really mean, and what impact did it have?
Most importantly, the NCLB act mandated that every child be tested each year in elementary and middle school by a state test. It also stipulated that school reform would be led by the states, that under-performing schools would receive assistance, and that students of schools in crisis would be able transfer to other schools. Former Democratic senator of Massachusetts, Edward Kelly, described the legislation as, “a defining issue about the future of our nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States leading the free world.”
On the surface, the plan seemed quite feasible; it’s important to measure how our students are performing and a test seems fine to do just that. But what was this really all about? No high-performing country in the world was testing their students every year. What lawmakers truly wanted was accountability. Based on how well students were learning, rewards and/or punishments would be delivered accordingly.
Accountability was measured in various ways. Performance levels such as basic, proficient, and advanced were adopted, all schools and districts were expected to make adequate yearly progress, schools that did not meet adequate progress were labeled as a school in need of improvement, and all states were required to participate in the National Assessment of Education Progress, which would test students in reading or math. These tests had no consequences for the students and simply determined if states were meeting their goals.
One of the most outlandish goals set by NCLB was its command that all students in every school district be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014, despite language barriers and need-differences. The 2013 NAEP for 4th grade reading showed that 32% of students in the nation were below basic, 33% were basic, 27% were proficient, and 8% were advanced. In the same year, 27% of 8th grade students were proficient in reading, and 4% were advanced. In 2015, these scores remained unchanged, and the 2014 goal was not surprisingly unmet.
NCLB was like passing environmental reform legislation in 2001 and saying that pollution would be nonexistent by 2014. But what were the consequences of not reaching an unattainable goal? Would it be fair to close schools and punish teachers for not doing the impossible? Probably not. But did it happen? Absolutely.
Thousands of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington D.C. and other districts closed because they could not meet the demands of NCLB. Public schools were turned into private schools and charters and superintendents took pride in closing schools rather than admitting defeat. Further nuances and impacts of the legislation show that NCLB was not good for education.