Next round begins for No Child Left Behind

After five years, the education reform law has effected major change, but now must be voted on again by Congress.

When President Bush signed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act five years ago Monday, he conducted a three-state road show, touted its bipartisan roots, and promised it would put US schools "on a new path of reform, and a new path of results."

In the five years since, critics and admirers of the bill tend to agree about the reform part, but say they're still waiting for results.

Achievement levels are creeping up toward the 2014 deadline when all public school children are supposed to be "proficient" at math and reading, and the racial and economic achievement gaps have narrowed slightly in a few cases, but not at all in others.

Yet even the act's harshest critics admit it has changed the conversation about education in America, and has focused attention on poor-achieving groups of students who had been overlooked.

This year, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is getting particular attention: It's not just the five-year anniversary, but the year the act expires and must be voted on again by Congress – an opportunity many are hoping will be used to revise the law – either a lot or a little – to make it more effective.

"I'm actually even more hopeful about this second iteration of this law than I was about the first," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "In general, I think the law has been more helpful than not. For a piece of legislation that really changed the conversation from universal access to universal proficiency, I wouldn't necessarily expect to get that paradigm shift right the first time around."

A national reform

In its five years, the law has affected nearly every elementary and high school in the country.

Testing is now conducted every year from Grades 3 through 8, and students' performance is measured against that of the rest of their state and is broken down by race and income level. If any of those groups fails to make the "adequate yearly progress" two years in a row, the school is placed on an "in need of improvement" list. Schools on the list that receive federal funds are then subject to mounting sanctions and extra services.

And that's just the most visible change. The ultimate goal is to have every child meeting standards by 2014.

For now, though, the results are less clear. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation's report card, have climbed slowly in reading and math for some groups, but the number of students who are "proficient" is still discouraging.

Just 41 percent of all white fourth graders meet the standard in reading, for instance. For both reading and math, only 13 percent of all black fourth graders are "proficient." Teachers complain of the stigma of being a failing school, and principals worry about the myriad ways they could end up on a watch list.

The Department of Education emphasizes the long-term NAEP trends, noting that more progress in the reading scores of 9-year-olds was made between 1999 and 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. But in general, even supporters say they're happier with the conversation the law has jumpstarted than with the results.

"It's been more effective at capturing attention and getting the rhetorical attention than in actually prompting people to go after the hard stuff they're going to need to go after to actually close these gaps," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which focuses on closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students. She credits NCLB with some improvement in the achievement gap, but would like to see teacher quality standards better enforced.

A push to help those at the bottom

One change that seems likely to get traction is a shift toward a "growth" model of assessing schools, in which schools with students who come in far below grade level get credit for helping them make big strides, even if they still fall short of proficiency – so long as, the Department of Education emphasizes, they do get students to a proficient level eventually. The department has already approved pilot programs in five states, and wants Congress to include such a model in NCLB.

Still, some critics want far more sweeping changes. A coalition called the Forum on Educational Accountability now has more than 100 groups – including the NAACP and the National Education Association – which have signed a list of 14 requested changes to the law. They include lowering the current proficiency targets, providing more assistance to failing schools, getting rid of sanctions with less record of improvement, and encouraging testing designed to measure higher thinking skills and performance throughout the year.

"The goal [of NCLB] is reasonable – the structure and way it's been implemented have been a disaster," says Monty Neill, director of FairTest and chairman of the forum.

He says some sanctions, such as allowing students to attend another school, aren't working, and that the testing and annual progress requirements have caused many schools to narrow their curriculum and "teach to the test" in the months preceding it.

"We'd be better off putting money into the teachers, teaching them how to be better assessors, and building in methods for spot checking and getting feedback," Mr. Neill says.

Slim chance for change in 2007

While the conversation is heated, the likelihood that NLCB will be reauthorized this year may be small. An informal poll of Washington insiders conducted by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation found that none believed it is likely this year, and most thought it would be put off until after the 2008 presidential election.

Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy of the foundation and an early supporter of NCLB, admits that by this point, he's convinced that the federal government simply can't accomplish what it wants. He'd keep the goals of NCLB, but put the federal government's effort into setting strong national standards – instead of the widely varying state standards that currently exist – and have the states and districts figure out on their own how to get students to meet those standards.

"What we've learned more than anything else is that the federal government isn't well-equipped to force school districts to do things they don't want to do," Mr. Petrilli says.

The Department of Education, meanwhile, asks critics to be patient.

"We're in such a different place" than we were five years ago, says Kerri Briggs, acting assistant secretary for policy. "Education reform is not necessarily speedy work. It's tough stuff and requires putting in new assessments, creating data systems, rethinking curriculum, new professional development for teachers.... We have a lot of heavy lifting left to do."

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