Yesterday, we introduced the first installment of a primer about the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Let’s continue with that discussion in this installment by analyzing some of NCLB’s pros and cons.
Because schools in states receiving federal funding for education are required to administer standardized tests on an annual basis, the results of which are then analyzed to determine academic achievement, proponents of NCLB point to enhanced accountability for schools and teachers. They support the perceived increased transparency of the education system under NCLB, since school districts are now required to provide parents with detailed information explaining adequate yearly progress (AYP). AYP is the measurement defined by the NCLB Act used to determine schools’ academic performance based upon the standardized tests. Furthermore, parents and taxpayers can now access school performance data more readily and have measurable, quantifiable data through which they can assess their school’s performance compared to others locally and nationally. Proponents also feel that the law provides resources to schools regardless of wealth, ethnicities and/or disabilities of students, or other similar factors. They believe that it also helps to close the gaps between disadvantaged subgroups and the mainstream student population.
In spite of all of these potentially positive outcomes, opponents of NCLB point to a host of problems with the law. For starters, although NCLB was significantly underfunded at the state level when it was first signed into law, states nevertheless risked punitive action if they were unable to comply with all of its provisions. While NCLB did not really force the huge budget cuts we so often hear about, it did prioritize where districts put dollars. It also resulted in some districts adding additional positions, such as reading and math specialists. These resulting different priorities as a result of NCLB have become contributing factors in education budgeting concerns.
Opponents also point out that NCLB creates a focus upon students merely scoring well on standardized testing rather than upon meaningful, long-term learning. In order to meet the provisions under the law, many teachers nationwide end up narrowing their scope of instruction. And because the states are charged with developing their own standardized tests as a means of assessment, they have the incentive to institute low standards and create easier tests in order to disguise poor performance if they so choose. Because the law’s response can include imposing punitive measures on the school if the school fails to make AYP, the incentives are to set expectations lower rather than higher and to manipulate test results. This, of course, would serve to lower the overall academic standards for the nation’s students rather than raising them. There have even been a multitude of documented cases in which schools have cheated on standardized tests in order to raise scores—most recently in the states of Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Furthermore, while NCLB focuses upon reading, writing, and mathematics, it ignores other subjects like history, arts, and foreign language. In a similar vein, many opponents argue that students with disabilities or limited proficiency in English are at an unfair disadvantage with the standardized tests, which in turn can adversely affect the standing of the entire school. Moreover, using standardized testing as the sole measure of performance means that schools demonstrating significant progress but not achieving an acceptable level of proficiency are still labeled as substandard.
There is a provision in NCLB that is designed to recognize schools making significant progress in student achievement even if they are not making AYP. This provision is called Safe Harbor. Safe Harbor can be achieved through acceptable attendance and graduation rates and if less than 15 percent of students’ test results are in the lowest proficiency level—which, in CSD’s case, means scoring a Level 1 on NECAP tests—in every subgroup. There must also be at least 10 percent growth in the subgroups not making the annual measurable objective (AMO). On a similar note, because each AMO is a target number with a confidence band—which is essentially the standard deviation range—schools within that confidence band can make AYP.
And what of other challenges faced by public schools that directly affect academic achievement but are not a result of deficiencies in education? Many areas of the country, particularly those in remote, rural areas or in inner-city regions, have significant teacher shortages. Factors like students facing hunger and homelessness and/or a lack of access to health care, as well as an array of cultural and behavior considerations, can also adversely affect student performance. Class size and the physical environments of the schools themselves can also detract from the quality of education that teachers can provide. Issues such as these can adversely impact standardized test scores, and they are not issues that even highly qualified teachers can rectify.
With this sampling of the pros and cons surrounding NCLB, it is clear that while the act has far-reaching implications for education, the overall benefits of it are far from certain.
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