There are few people today who would argue that the now-defunct 2002 No Child Left Behind law, however well-intentioned, was not severely flawed — at best. The chief education initiative of president George W. Bush ushered in an era of high-stakes standardized testing by mandating assessments and intervention at schools with low test scores, an agenda that led to a severe narrowing of curriculum and the labeling of schools that were doing just fine as failing. When President Obama signed No Child Left Behind out of existence last week, putting his signature on the new K-12 law of the land, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, there wasn’t a great deal of lamenting over its demise.
To mark the day, Obama gave a speech in which he said:
“The measure replaces No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that amplified Washington’s role in U.S. classrooms and launched a national system that judged schools based on math and reading test scores and required them to raise scores every year or face escalating penalties. No Child Left Behind was also created with strong bipartisan support, but over time its test-based accountability became widely seen as overly punitive and unrealistic.
“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones — high standards, accountability, closing the achievement gap, making sure every child was learning. But in practice, it often fell short. . . . It led to too much testing during classroom time, forced schools and school districts into cookie cutter reforms that didn’t produce the kind of results that we wanted to see.
“The new law erases that system and instead lets each state develop its own methods for judging school quality.”
Obama was letting his administration off the hook. While NCLB did lead to too much testing and cookie-cutter reforms, it was his own education secretary, Arne Duncan, who took NCLB’s inherent problems and amplified them. While the new law does eliminate some of the worst provisions of NCLB, it also goes a long way to rebuking the U.S. Education Department’s micromanagement of education policies in a way that even No Child never attempted to do.
It was the Bush administration that expanded federal involvement in education, traditionally left to local districts and states. NCLB, was, as Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and William J. Mathias, the center’s managing director, wrote in this policy brief, an “ineffective solution to some very real problems,” chief among them that “opportunities for children to grow, learn, and thrive were inequitably distributed in 2001,” when Congress passed NCLB.
The idea behind NCLB was that inequitable education opportunities would be reduced or disappear by forcing students to take standardized tests, schools to disaggregate the data to show how different sub-groups of students performed, and districts to intervene with specific courses of action in the lowest-performing schools.
The fundamental notion that standardized testing was an effective way of gauging student achievement was not challenged by policymakers — though critics warned such reforms wouldn’t work — and NCLB set an impossible goal that all students would be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. The authors of NCLB actually knew the goal was unrealistic, but assumed the law would be rewritten five years after Bush signed it in 2002. As time went on, more and more schools — including high-performing schools — were considered failing because of the peculiarities of the law’s language and the way states had implemented NCLB over time.
By the time Obama became president in 2009, problems with NCLB had become apparent. Many schools had reduced the time spent on instruction in every subject except reading and math, and some virtually eliminated arts programs and physical education. Many teachers and schools organized school time around test prep.
In early 2010, Diane Ravitch, an education historian who became the unofficial leader of an anti test-based reform movement, published a book titled “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” that exposed many of NCLB’s problems. Ravitch had served as an assistant secretary in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and was a vocal backer of NCLB; she was at the White House as part of a select group when George W. Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind, and, she wrote, she was “excited and optimistic.” But evidence of what was going on in public schools forced her to change her mind, a turning point in the life of NCLB.
Many Obama supporters expected him to reduce the importance of “bubble tests” for school accountability purposes. He went the other way, attaching even higher stakes to them. He embraced the agenda of school reformers who believed that America’s public school system — arguably the country’s most important civic institution — should be run like businesses, with competition and big data as key drivers of change.
In 2009, Obama and Duncan introduced the $4.3 billion competitive grant program called Race to the Top, which dispensed federal funds to states that promised to make reforms that the administration approved, including the creation of new educator evaluation systems to include student standardized test scores, the expansion of charter schools, and the adoption of common standards (which everyone knew meant the Common Core). Most states rushed to pass laws linking scores to evaluation, even though assessment experts — including the American Statistical Association — warned against the “value-added measurement” method being used to make that linkage. And the administration provided some $360 million for the creation of new Core-aligned standardized tests.
In 2011, as Congress continued to ignore calls to rewrite NCLB, Obama announced that his administration would grant waivers from NCLB’s most onerous mandates to states — but there was a catch. States had to pursue the Obama-Duncan test-based school reforms. At the time, some noted that if George W. Bush had tried to issue waivers to an education law passed by a Democratic president in such a selective way, he would have been blasted.
In 2012, while announcing the granting of waivers to a dozen states, Obama said:
“The goals of No Child Left Behind were the right ones. Standards and accountability — those are the right goals. Closing the achievement gap, that’s a good goal. That’s the right goal. We’ve got to stay focused on those goals. But we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test, or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures. That doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help our children in the classroom.”
He was right: The NCLB approach didn’t much help children or schools. But what he did not acknowledge, or perhaps didn’t recognize, is that his administration’s policies — including the process through which states received these waivers — don’t help matters at all and in some cases make them worse.
Over time, the requirement that teachers be evaluated by standardized test scores led to some situations that could only be called nonsensical. Standardized tests were given only in math and English Language Arts but in many places all teachers were supposed to be evaluated by them. So some places experimented. In 2011, students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina helped field-test a total of 52 new standardized tests in every single subject, kindergartners included. (A student wrote a piece titled, “Why do I have to take a standardized test in Yearbook?“)
Some evaluated teachers on the average scores of all students in a school. In New York, teachers who don’t teach English Language Arts or math were evaluated by one or the other, depending on whether the subject they do teach was seen as being more connected to one or the other. For example, an art teacher in New York is assessed by his students’ standardized math scores.
The result: teachers were assessed on the test scores of students they didn’t have and/or subjects they didn’t teach. The Obama administration kept pushing ahead.
Educators began speaking out, and parents began refusing to allow their children to take standardized tests. The Obama administration kept pushing ahead.
A number of studies and papers were released by assessment experts and researchers pointing to why standardized test scores are unreliable and invalid as factors in high-stakes decisions. The Obama administration kept pushing ahead.
In 2014, the administration put forth its newest experiment in evaluation by test score: a plan to spend millions of dollars to reward those colleges of education whose graduates, among other things, are successful in raising their students’ standardized test scores.
It wasn’t until this year that it looked as if Congress would finally take action to replace NCLB. In January 2015, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. education secretary, became chairman of the Senate education committee, and he made fixing NCLB a top priority. He dubbed Duncan’s Education Department a “national school board,” and worked with the ranking Democratic member of his committee, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, as well as the House education committee chair, Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, to reach a compromise to rewrite NCLB.
This past October, Obama said publicly that kids were, in fact, overtested, and called for limits. Last week, he signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act.
The new K-12 federal education law doesn’t eliminate the federal requirement for annual testing. Nor does it eliminate the need for intervention in schools with the lowest test scores. But it does strip the U.S. education secretary of some power, leaving, for example, states to decide if they want to evaluate teachers by test scores, and eliminating competitive education funding.
In his speech, Obama made it sound like his test-based education policies were simply part of NCLB. They were far more than that. They take standardized test-based “accountability” to heights NCLB had not suggested. They led to a broader federal involvement in education issues — at least that the administration deemed important, such as testing and standards — than NCLB embraced.
So those people unhappy with the state of public schools — where many teachers feel as if they have been under attack for years, where high-stakes testing has become a central part of the academic year — can’t put the blame entirely on No Child Left Behind and George W. Bush. President Obama and his administration, as many have said in recent years, took NCLB and put it on steroids.