Taking Stock on the Anniversary of 'No Child Left Behind'


Jan 10, 2013

girl in a classroom with a stack of textbooks

This commentary originally appeared on The Huffington Post on January 10, 2013.

This week marks the 11th anniversary of the signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001—the “No Child Left Behind” Act. The legislation is due to be reauthorized, although there is little movement on Capitol Hill toward making this happen any time soon. And in the absence of congressional action, the Department of Education is encouraging new policies through administrative initiatives like “Race to the Top” and the “No Child Left Behind” waiver process.

Since President George W. Bush signed the law on Jan. 8, 2002, the ways in which American students are educated has changed considerably, often for the good. But there is room for improvement.

Our 2010 national study of “No Child Left Behind” led to several potential improvements Congress should consider when reauthorizing NCLB:

  • Promote more consistent and rigorous academic standards across all states. To date, measures of proficiency vary from state to state, so a student deemed proficient in one state could potentially move to another state and no longer be considered proficient. One promising initiative that can help address this problem is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which proposes a set of reading and math standards that states can adopt on a voluntary basis. So far, only five states have not adopted these standards.

    New assessments and standards appearing in the next few months may address these concerns. The two national assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)—will release their next-generation tests. It will be important to follow states' decisions about adoption and to determine the quality and practicality of the tests.

    As for subjects that are crucial to college and career readiness, new science standards will be issued during the next year, and it is important to see if they are adopted and if support is provided to transform curriculum and instruction accordingly.

  • Capture student gains at all points on the test score distribution. NCLB's proficient / not proficient dichotomy has resulted in schools not receiving credit for gains made above or below the proficiency threshold. This provides an incentive for schools to focus on their “bubble kids”—students just below the threshold. Improved measures of growth should capture gains at the low end of the distribution as well as among advanced students.

  • Broaden the set of measured outcomes beyond reading and math. By “broaden,” we mean in two particular ways: more extensive measures of math and language arts that include higher order skills like problem solving, and measures of other subjects that are important to college and career readiness. Student learning in other subjects—including social studies, science, art and music—is not always evaluated through achievement tests. Similarly, important, high-order skills such as problem solving and teamwork may be underrepresented or excluded.

  • Keep the classroom in mind when designing tests. Because the content and format of achievement tests has a huge influence over how teachers run their classrooms, it is crucial that we design high-quality tests that measure the range of skills and knowledge we want students to learn.

While “No Child Left Behind” aims to improve schools, Congress can improve the law. Flexibility and capacity are crucial, particularly for struggling schools. In a tight fiscal environment, many school districts lack the capacity—and at times, the political will—to make the changes necessary for real school improvement.

A structure that allows for a flexible system of interventions and fosters capacity-building can encourage states and districts to help their most struggling schools in the most effective way.

Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist and associate director of RAND Education at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.