Popularly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESEA promised to close the achievement gap and herald an era of evidence-based education policy by giving federal teeth to a state-based accountability process launched in the early 1980s. However, NCLB not only failed to accomplish these goals, but also led to some schools resorting to cheating, so as to increase test scores.
Starting in 1984, I taught for 18 years in a South Carolina public school. For the past 13 years I have been a professor of teacher education. Throughout these 30-plus years, I have witnessed how accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing has guided how we view and run schools.
My experience and analysis of education policy during that time have revealed important lessons from NCLB – ones likely to be ignored during the re-authorization process. Education reform under the Obama administration and the initial plans for re-authorization show that politicians continue to support standardized testing as part of accountability policies, despite a long record of failure.
US education policy has been guided by “miracle” claims
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, “miracles” in education reform have significantly influenced US education policy. NCLB, for instance, was built on bi-partisan support for George W. Bush’s self-proclaimed Texas “Miracle.”
The “miracle” under Bush suggested that accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing raised student achievement and solved some long-standing educational challenges, such as drop-out rates and achievement gaps.
However, scholars have raised questions about the “miracle.” Emeritus professor at Boston College, Walt Haney, who analyzed the Texas reform, concluded:
The gains on TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) and the unbelievable decreases in dropouts during the 1990s are more illusory than real. The Texas “miracle” is more hat than cattle.
Despite ample evidence and expert opinion, such “miracle” reforms continue to drive policy even under Obama. Before becoming secretary of education in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan was credited with improving student pass rates in Chicago, another so-called education “miracle.”
Testing pressures have led to corrupt practices
In addition, NCLB has created several negative consequences.
For example, the pressure of accountability to meet unattainable goals such as 100% proficiency has resulted in cheating in order to raise test scores. High-profile cases have occurred in Atlanta and Washington DC.
Also as detailed by an academic, Andre Perry, testing pressures under NCLB led to corrupt practices in public and charter schools that were exposed in New Orleans. As Perry stated in his analysis, “the desperation to show growth can lead to nefarious practices like counseling out [identifying students likely to score low on tests and recommending they leave a school]” or even excessive expulsion and suspension.
The focus on raising test scores led to other negative consequences as well – such as a increasing the emphasis on core courses while also eliminating electives such as art and even more teaching for the test. As a result, expectations for students were also narrowed.
A final consequence was a booming education marketplace. UK-based Pearson “has reaped the benefits,” as Stephanie Simon reports: “Half of its $8 billion in annual global sales comes from its North American education division.” A Software & Information Industry Association report reveals that testing and assessment products – which include software, digital content and related digital services – have increased by 57% since 2012-2013. They now make up the largest single category of educational technology sales.
NCLB fails to close the achievement gap
Most important of all, NCLB has failed its most ambitious goals, including closing the achievement gap and ushering in evidence-based policy.
Based at UCLA and founded to deepen understanding of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, the Civil Rights Project and FairTest, a program that works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing, after a careful analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, reveal that the achievement gap, which appeared to be closing before these accountability measures, has become stagnant over the last two decades:
Further, we must ask: Have NCLB legislation and funding led to more evidence-based policies? Often not.
Notably, value-added methods (VAM), a complex statistical method to interpret test data, is used as a tool for holding teachers accountable for student test scores. A study for the Educational Testing Service warns that this policy is unreliable for individual teacher evaluations and will discourage teaching high-needs students.
Education policy needs to focus on equity
Also, accountability measures have allowed for policies that let states take over districts or schools labeled “failing.” However, close analysis of schools that were taken over did not show significant student achievement. In fact, such policies often disenfranchise students and communities.
In my view, throughout the NCLB era, evidence has been consistently trumped by partisan politics.
Ultimately, the real lessons of NCLB are that accountability based on testing is not the solution to educational problems that are grounded mostly in rising poverty.
Education policy focusing on equity, community, and support would serve our students and schools well – and not the political and commercial interests that have benefited so far from the ineffective and harmful NCLB.