No Child Left Behind: An analysis of the controversy

No Child Left Behind: An analysis of the controversy

© 2004 Thomas Imms
La Salle University

reedited 1/12/08

Ever since President Bush signed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in January of 2002, renaming it the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), there has been spreading controversy related to the objectives and implementation of the act. There is no argument as to the desirability of the goals and ideals of this legislation; indeed, there is widespread support. It is at the point where it is operationalized, where these goals are transformed into reality, and consideration of what this transformation means, where controversy arises. This debate is ongoing, as is the full implementation of NCLB itself and along with them a growing awareness and concern related to the implications of the act.

Achievability of Goals, Availability of Resources

Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real.
-- President George W. Bush

This statement, essentially a mission statement, can well serve as representative for the position of proponents of NCLB. Although there are 814 stated requirements included in the act, they can be summarized by the six central priorities: higher accountability for results, more choice for parents, teachers who are highly qualified, encouragement for using proven educational methods, greater freedom for state and local educational authorities, and flexibility regarding the use of funds. (Steffan, 2004) The laws purpose is to not only narrow, but actually close the achievement gap for all public school students in the United States. This will be accomplished by requiring 100% proficiency in Math and English for 100% of the students.

Detractors of the legislation take no issue with the stated goals, priorities, or purposes of NCLB. As stated earlier, the controversy arises around the implementation of the act. The first key area of controversy is funding. For the first time, Federal funding is directly connected to academic accountability. There are two major schools of thought related to the funding issue: the level of, and unrealistic nature of the accountability required to receive NCLB funding; and doubt and uncertainty that the funding will materialize once these accountability requirements are met, to the full extent that is promised in the legislation. One educator said, "It is the cruelest illusion to promise far more than we will ever deliver.", and this is the essence of many detractors fears: that the Federal government will never fully meet the fiscal obligations of NCLB; and without the full funding, state and local authorities will be unable to meet the promise to fully educate every student. (Mathis, 2003)

Accountability Requirements

It is the second key area of controversy related to NCLB that will be the focus of this paper: the nature of the accountability requirements of the act. Specifically, the issues related to the focus on "high-stakes" standardized testing to assess students, teachers, schools, districts, states, and national progress; and the universal application of a homogeneous assessment to a vastly diverse, heterogeneous student population. All of the stakeholders agree with the need for accountability related to our public school education, but they strongly disagree as to the form and the function of the assessments used to measure that accountability.

In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed. With this groundbreaking legislation the Federal government, for the first time, took on a significant role in educational funding (U.S. DOE, 2004) In 1969 the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was developed by federal mandate to assess academic progress at the state and national levels.(Hombo, 2003) The Education for All Handicapped Students Act of 1975 ( now known as IDEA, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) mandated the provision of education for all special needs students, in the least restrictive environment, and, where possible, inclusion in mainstream classrooms.(Steffan, 2004) Title I of the Improving America"s Schools Act (ISIA) of 1994 mandated standards-aligned assessments for all states.(Goertz & Duffy, 2003) These are mentioned here, primarily, because they serve as the building blocks of NCLB.

As stated earlier, it is a reauthorization and renaming of ESEA; uses the NAEP to measure improvement; and requires all states to continue standards-based assessments for all students, including, now, all those covered under IDEA regulations. The NCLB legislation contains elements of, and relates to, every significant education-related federal legislation since the initial introduction of ESEA in 1965. The scope and Depth of NCLB, and its direct correlation to Federal funding, is the genesis of the controversy herein examined.

Problems of Understanding:

Within the 670 pages of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 are contained legions of terms that have related problems of understanding. (Price, 2003) It is impossible to ignore the sloganistic nature of the legislations name, itself. Who could possibly be opposed to leaving no child behind? Detractors, though, have called No Child Left Behind an "empty rhetorical phrase."(Thomas & Bainbridge, 2002) The National Education Association (NEA) repeatedly adds "so-called" when referring to the legislation that it says "presents real obstacles" to improving education. (NEA, 2004) It may be this organizations continued and vocal opposition to NCLB that led U.S. Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, to call them a "terrorist organization" earlier this year.(Neilsen, 2004)

One of the key components of NCLB is the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress.(AYP ) In its Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind, in a section called Terms to Know, the U.S. Department of Education states that each state establishes a definition of AYP, and how AYP is used, but never really defines it. In fact, AYP refers to the minimum level of demonstrated progress required. In the same document NCLB is compared and connected to the ideals of our Founding Fathers and to Brown v. Board of Education. (U.S. DOE, 2004) How can one dare to argue against legislation that "continues the legacy" of such moral and ethical elements of our collective history? In an evaluation of the costs and benefits of NCLB, William J. Mathis states, "There is simply no body of accepted scientific knowledge that states that all students and all subgroups of students can reach meaningful high standards, at the required AYP pace,"(Mathis, 2003) This is interesting considering that the terms evidence-based or research-based education are used at least 130 times in the Act.(Lewis, 2003) It is no wonder that the 35th Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll shows that we expect many students to fail.(Rose & Gallup, 2003)

The passage of NCLB has significantly increased the prominence of standardized testing in our schools. (Jorgensen, 2002/2003) One critic says that "Standardized tests measure standardized knowledge in standardized ways" and are "biased in standardized ways."(Price, 2003) Policy makers are using the outcomes of these assessments to make critical decisions, and determine accountability. (Goertz & Duffy, 4) This use of the outcomes is exactly how J.P. Heubert defines high-stakes testing. (Gregory & Clark, 2003) Many feel that these high stakes lead to increased pressure to raise scores which can have a "distorting effect on teaching and learning", namely teaching to the test.

There is, in fact, at least one case of a teacher being dismissed for teaching the actual test, the Professional Standards Commission v. Smith, 571 S.E.2nd 443(Ga. Ct. App.2002) (Zirkel, 2003) Further, that NCLB has transformed all state-mandated testing into high-stakes testing. (Gulek, 2003) Susan Sclafani, a counselor to the Secretary of Education, in response to these criticisms points out that the stakes are indeed high, the futures of our children; and that teaching to the test is acceptable "If the assessment is a good measure of what it is we want children to know and be able to do," (Sclafani, 2002/2003) For her, and for policy makers, it is the quality of the assessment which is critical. Iris Rotberg of the Brooking Institution makes a statement which is more in line with what critics of NCLB believe is critical, "What matters is how educators, parents, and students change their behaviors in response to the tests and whether these behavioral changes are productive" (Rotberg, 2002) It is, indeed, the counter-productive putative nature of NCLB regulations related to testing outcomes which fuels this controversy.

The central goal of NCLB is to achieve 100% proficiency, by 100% of the students, in English and Math by 2014, and annual progress towards that end. The high-stakes tests are used, then, to measure the progress, and presumably the eventual and universal proficiency that is the endpoint of NCLB. It is the absolute nature of NCLB requirements which also fuels the controversy. There are no true accommodations for students who fall below the standard, either in terms of Socio-Economic or Special educational needs. The legislation is built on the misguided framework of a level playing field, which does not exist in reality. (Neuman, 2003)

It is the second group, though, that is directly impacted by NCLB programming. Part of the Title I requirements of NCLB is the Reading First initiative. Under this program heavy emphasis is placed on teaching reading through sound. How can deaf and hearing-impaired students possibly do well on assessments based on this instruction? Another facet of Reading First is that all students must be able to read by 3rd grade. There is a substantial body of knowledge related to why deaf students may not be able to read by 3rd grade, though. (Steffan, 2004) How can these students be expected to exhibit AYP equivalent to their hearing peers? And this is just one of the multitudes of subsets demonstrating their own unique difficulties, research and experience/evidence based difficulties, in meeting the expectations of NCLB regulations.

Problems of Fact:

The controversy over the high-stakes standardized tests can be examined by looking at the core beliefs related to it held by the opposing groups. Proponents believe that higher test scores are indicative of the fact that learning has occurred; whereas, Detractors believe that it is authentic learning which leads to better test scores. These seem to say the same thing, but the difference essentially comes down to the issue of focus. The Proponents and, indeed, the NCLB requirements are focused on the testing results, while their opponents are focused on the process of learning. Both sides recognize the value of the tests as a measure of knowledge, but disagree as to the content, meaning, and uses of the test scores. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) points out that the U.S. Department of Education has failed to provide consistent guidelines and standards for these assessments.(AFT, 2004) It is impossible, in the absence of such provisions, to determine what needs to be learned or assessed. It seems ludicrous, then, to attach accountability to such an unstable concept.

Problems of Value:

The Problems of Value for this controversy are directly related to the Problems of Fact; that is, the issue of focus. Proponents of NCLB, especially two of its key authors: President Bush and Secretary of Education Paige, both of whom hail from Texas, point to the successes achieved in that state. They point to the correlation between increases in the percentage of students meeting the standards and scores on the NAEP, a very positive correlation. The problem, however, is that these increases were not accompanied by other increases which many others would assign high value, namely high school completion and college attendance. (Mathis, 2003) The key question, then, is which of these has more value? Culturally and economically it would seem to be the latter pair, but, for proponents of NCLB, it is demonstrably the former.


There has been, and there continues to be a place for standardized testing for public school students in the United States. The ongoing controversy is due to the fact that policy makers expect one assessment system to provide evidence of systemic educational performance, provide for accountability, certify student performance, motivate students and teachers, and provide guidance for instruction. (Goertz & Duffy, 2003) It is questionable that any one assessment tool could simultaneously address all of these. Standardized tests, when properly used to assess students and guide instruction, have a welcome place in American Education. It is when they are used as gateways to academic advancement and funding that they "dull-down the entire educational process", robbing it of its effective edge. (Price, 2003) Susan Sclafani, of the U.S. Department of Education, states that "a single test is not sufficient to evaluate student achievement or a schools quality.", and, according to the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans agree with her. (Sclafani, 2003)(Rose & Gallup, 2003)

The consensus ends there, though. The Department of Education recommendation is for states to narrow their assessments "by focusing on the basic NCLB requirements.", and to conduct these same assessments annually to create an aggregate body of knowledge. (Jorgensen, 2002/2003) This cannot be what respondents to the poll meant by a single test not providing "a fair picture of whether a school is in need of improvement." (Rose & Gallup, 2003) It would, rather, seem to indicate a number of different assessment methods to create a portfolio of school performance, an authentic assessment.


The nature and uses of standardized tests for assessing our national educational progress has been, and will continue to be, a source of controversy. Stakeholders on either side of the issue believe that they have strong pedagogical and ethical support for their positions. The disparity in their separate beliefs is increased, though, by the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As long as this legislation stands in its current form, and without any major regulatory changes related to it, this conflict will continue and, in all likelihood, deepen as the stakes grow higher.

The recommendation of William Mathis for seriously attaining the goal of educating all children will serve as the conclusion here; a reminder of what the motivation for all of the stakeholders of this controversy should be.

  "Educators must embrace accountability. We must work to ensure that no school provides substandard, inadequate, or inequitable educational programs. We must do so not because it is politically expedient but because it is what we owe the children, our society, and ourselves." (Mathis, 2003)



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