The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law by George W. Bush in 2001, mandates standardized testing to assess both individual student and school progress. The tests are administered at intervals of several years throughout the students’ progress, for example, in the fourth, seventh, and tenth grades. While the testing programs are federally mandated, it is up to each individual state how the tests are devised, administered, scored, and evaluated.
A key provision of the NCLB is that each school must demonstrate “AYP,” or Adequate Yearly Progress. This rule applies in particular to schools whose students collectively test in the fourth quartile or lowest 25%. AYP refers to a measurable yearly improvement in school performance on standardized testing. A school that consistently stays in the fourth quartile and/or fails to demonstrate AYP can face increasingly severe penalties, starting with the loss of autonomy in the administration of its curricula to the outright dissolution of the school. Jennings and Rentner reported that as of 2006, the first year in which it was possible for a school to have been out of AYP for five years, 3% of all schools were in restructuring, and he added that “The longer the law is in effect, the more likely it is that some schools will not make AYP for five years” (Jennings & Rentner, 2006, p.11). In fact, the percentage of schools nationwide failing to make AYP has become much higher in recent years. The figures vary according to the agency making the assessments (independent, state, or federal), the individual states, and the varying standards for AYP, but most agree that the percentage is at least 38% and more alarmingly, continuing to rise. This does not equate to a five-year failure for all such schools, but it seems certain that the 3% figure of 2006 will be a historical low.
The costs imposed on a state school system from even a failure rate as low as 3% would be devastating. The school that is “restructured” would have to be essentially rebuilt from the ground up. While this was happening, students would have to be taken to other schools at district expense, increasing both costs and burdens on those other schools, many of which will be struggling with their own AYP issues and whose resources are stretched thinly enough as it is. One can easily see a “domino effect,” as the students from one shut-down school are the straw that breaks the camel’s back of another school, which in turn creates even more students who must be absorbed elsewhere, and so forth. In fact, many states, fearing just such an effect, have essentially ignored the federal standards, or in many cases, there has been “creative accounting” to ensure that a school doesn’t hit that fatal, fifth year of AYP non-compliance.
The “Race to the Top” initiative of 2009 is a federal funding incentive program that awards millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, to dollars to states that meet educational achievement goals in a number of categories. Many of the criteria relate to student performance on the standardized testing mandated by the NCLB. There exists a certain amount of controversy regarding the effectiveness of an individual state-based incentive program. For instance, McGuinn (2012) states that “Many of the political and institutional obstacles to sustaining meaningful reform at the federal and state levels remain largely the same” (McGuinn, 2012, p.136). In other words, simply throwing money at a problem (something the federal government has long been criticized for as its primary solution to all problems) doesn’t affect real reform. There is another interesting consideration: awarding money to the highest-performing states will have the effect of widening the achievement gap between those states and the ones that didn’t perform well enough to receive the grants. This is not only throwing money at the problem but also throwing it where it is needed the least: to those states wherein students are performing well. It is true that the lower a state’s standing is initially, the easier it is for that state to qualify (because it has so much room to improve). But there is a fundamental flaw in making states compete with each other for federal largesse, in that one state must fail (relatively speaking) for another to succeed.
The PARCC Assessments are on track to begin in the 2014-15 school year. The testing program has been modified many times since it was first proposed, but the model is for two yearly rounds of standardized testing on core subjects such as reading, writing, math, and science. These will be in addition to the existing NCLB mandated tests and whatever other state assessments are given. The concern here is in generalizing the data to a large population with the goal of assessing college preparedness. The fear is, as Herman and Linn (2013) warned, that “If history is a guide, educators will align curriculum and teaching to what is tested, and what is not assessed largely will be ignored” (Herman & Linn, 2013, p.4). In point of fact, “teaching to the test” is a major distortion in pedagogy that is a direct result of the NCLB and the Race to the Top and will only be exacerbated by the PARCC assessments.
It seems likely that in the next ten years, a major shift in elementary and high school educational processes will occur that is the polar opposite of what the enactors of these acts envisioned. The elimination of inadequately performing schools will increase the burden on already struggling school districts. Interstate competition for federal money will only widen the gap between the states in terms of achievement. In general, the present and future great emphasis on testing will force educators to first and foremost, teach their students to pass tests—in order that their schools can continue to receive funding so that they can pass the next round of tests. This is an educational death spiral. The near future will see a dramatic increase in the stratification of education: a widening gap between the successful and the unsuccessful that will be the exact opposite of what was intended by the NCLB and its sequels. The weakness is primarily in attempting to impose a federal standard on fifty different states, each of which is unique in demographics and therefore educational needs. One size does not fit all.
Herman, J. L., & Linn, R. L. (2013). On the road to assessing deeper learning: The status of smarter balanced and PARCC assessment consortia. (CRESST Report 823). Los Angeles, CA: University of California, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST).
Jennings, J., & Rentner, D. S. (2006). Ten big effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(2), 110-113.
McGuinn, P. (2012). Stimulating reform: Race to the Top, competitive grants and the Obama education agenda. Educational Policy, 26(1), 136-159.