Passing or Failing?

A Midterm Report Card for “No Child Left Behind”

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By Laura S. Hamilton, Brian M. Stecher, Georges Vernez, and Ron Zimmer

The authors — who have expertise in behavioral science, social science, urban planning, and economics, respectively — are all education policy analysts at RAND.

Jesse Jasso copies a word off the board during an English-language learning class at Walnut Middle School in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Jesse Jasso copies a word off the board during an English-language learning class at Walnut Middle School in Grand Island, Nebraska, on October 5, 2007. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools must report the scores of English-language learners to the federal government and face stiff penalties if their students fail to make the grade.

Although the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has been automatically extended for one year in the absence of a five-year reauthorization by the U.S. Congress, the debate over reauthorization continues. At any time until the current extension expires on September 30, 2008, Congress can reauthorize the law, which constitutes America’s largest-ever federal intervention into the management of primary and secondary schools.

RAND and its research partners have completed three in a series of ten reports on the effects of the landmark legislation. An additional RAND analysis has examined how the federal legislation has affected education at the local level. Based on the evidence so far, reflecting data as of 2005, we at RAND give the legislation a set of decidedly mixed midterm grades.

Nationally, all 50 states have complied with the law by testing students in required grades in reading and math. Of utmost concern, though, student “proficiency” on these tests has little common meaning across states. Thus, the criteria for determining which schools are identified for improvement — or ultimately for severe sanctions — also vary greatly across the states.

We studied the effects of two educational options that are provided by the legislation to parents whose children attend schools that are identified as needing improvement. One option is for parents to transfer their children to a school that is not identified as needing improvement; the other is for parents to enroll their children in tutoring or other supplemental educational services. We found that the few students who transferred from schools identified for improvement to higher-scoring schools saw no statistically significant effect on achievement. However, students from low-scoring schools who enrolled in tutoring or other supplemental services usually did score somewhat higher on reading and math tests.

We assessed the law’s provision that all teachers be “highly qualified.” Most teachers do meet their state requirements for being highly qualified. Once again, however, the requirements vary widely from state to state. We also found that the percentage of teachers deemed not highly qualified is higher among those who teach students with the greatest needs: special education students, English-language learners, and students in high-poverty and high-minority schools. These issues need to be addressed.

At the local level, we found that the law has affected the work of superintendents, principals, and teachers both positively and negatively. The law has led to a laudable emphasis on student achievement. But many teachers warn that “achievement” has been defined largely by testing rather than learning; they report narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested topics and even certain styles of test questions or formats. Despite this emphasis on testing, most local educators doubt their ability to meet the escalating student achievement (test-score) targets demanded by the law over the next several years.

Teachers also cite as unfair the fact that “adequate yearly progress” in test scores is now defined in terms of grade-level proficiency rates rather than individual-level progress over time, thus failing to give credit for all the learning gains promoted by teachers at all points along the scoring spectrum. As an alternative, the federal government could explore different types of metrics that take improvement into account across the distribution of achievement.

Because the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act depend on what happens in the classroom, it is critical to ensure that teachers respond to the law in productive ways. For this reason, it is equally important for the U.S. Congress to respond to the insights and observations of teachers when considering revisions to the law. Otherwise, it might end up receiving mostly failing grades by the end of its term.

State Variations

The No Child Left Behind Act is designed to achieve an ambitious goal: All children will be proficient in reading and mathematics by the 2013–14 school year. A key strategy for achieving this goal is to hold schools and districts accountable for student mastery of state curriculum standards, as measured by state tests. By 2014, fully 100 percent of students, including special education students and English-language learners, are supposed to score at “proficient” levels in reading and math. Up through 2014, schools and districts are supposed to demonstrate annual progress toward reaching this goal.

Every state must administer annual tests in reading and math for all students in grades 3–8 and at least once in grades 10–12. Every state must also develop annual test-score targets for all schools and districts, for all students, and for key subgroups of students, including minorities, those with disabilities, and those with limited English proficiency. Beginning in the current school year, all states must further test students in science at least once each in grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12.

The law sets up a series of progressively more serious interventions for federally subsidized schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two or more consecutive years (see the table). First, such schools become identified for “improvement.” In this stage, the interventions include developing an improvement plan, offering parents the choice to transfer their kids to another public school (beginning in the first year of improvement), and providing supplemental services, such as free tutoring (beginning in the second year).

Increasingly Aggressive Interventions Await Schools That Fail to Make “Adequate Yearly Progress”
Stages of Intervention for School Improvement Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

If school misses “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for two consecutive years

Identified for
Year 1
Identified for
Year 2
Corrective Action Restructuring

All interventions must occur simultaneously:

  • Offer parents school choice
  • Develop improvement plan
  • Notify parents
  • Allocate 10 percent of federal Title I funds for professional development
  • Receive technical assistance from districts and states

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional intervention

Offer supplemental educational services (tutoring, remediation, or other academic instruction) given by a state-approved provider

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional interventions (one or more of the following):

  • Implement research-based curriculum or instructional program
  • Decrease school’s management authority
  • Extend school day or school year
  • Replace staff relevant to school’s low performance

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional interventions

Phase 1: Develop restructuring plan

Phase 2 (one or more of the following):

  • Reopen school as a charter school
  • Replace all or most staff
  • Contract with another entity
  • Yield to state takeover of school
  • Conduct other major governance restructuring
SOURCE: State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act: Volume III, 2007.
NOTES: In schools identified for corrective action or restructuring, the district must also continue to offer school choice and supplemental services. A school exits school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring status only if it makes AYP for two consecutive years.

If an identified school misses its targets for an additional year, the district must take one of several “corrective actions,” followed by “restructuring” if the school misses its targets yet another year. Entire districts can also be identified for improvement. A school or district can be released from improvement, corrective action, or restructuring status only when it makes adequate yearly progress for two subsequent years in succession.

The law requires these interventions only for schools and districts that receive federal Title I funding, which the U.S. Department of Education has been disbursing since 1965 to schools and districts with high percentages of students from low-income families. States can also extend these interventions to other schools, using state resources.

The accountability system rests on the assumption that clear definitions of desired academic outcomes will provide incentives for improvement. At the same time, however, the federal law allows each state to define what it means to be “proficient.”

States vary widely in their proficiency standards for reading and math. Using a national test — the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — as a common benchmark, the state proficiency standards range from a NAEP-equivalent score of 242 in North Carolina to a NAEP-equivalent score of 314 in Missouri, a range of 72 points on the 500-point NAEP scale. Thus, a student deemed to be proficient in one state might not be considered proficient in another state. The same is true for schools and districts.

Adding to the variations in proficiency cutoff scores, each state charts its own trajectory of expected progress toward universal proficiency. States that originally set high performance standards have tended to have lower percentages of students scoring at the proficient level and must therefore make greater progress. In other words, states with higher standards are likely to face more challenges in reaching 100-percent proficiency.

A study we conducted with the American Institutes for Research found that, as of the 2003–04 school year, 75 percent of the nation’s schools and 71 percent of districts were making adequate yearly progress as defined by their states. The states varied greatly in the proportions of schools and districts meeting the targets, from 95 percent of schools in Wisconsin to 23 percent in Alabama and Florida — and from 100 percent of districts in Arkansas and Delaware to fewer than 10 percent in Alabama, West Virginia, and Florida.

Of the 25 percent of schools that did not make adequate yearly progress, either the whole school or multiple student subgroups missed the mark in just over half the cases. High- poverty, high-minority, and urban schools were less likely to make the grade. When schools did not meet the standard for a single subgroup, it was usually for students with disabilities.

In the 2004–05 school year, states varied hugely in the percentage of Title I schools and districts identified for improvement. For schools, the rate ranged from 2 percent in Iowa and Nebraska to 68 percent in Florida. For districts, the range could not have been wider: from 0 percent in several states to 100 percent in Florida.

Next section: Parental Options
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