The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), education reform legislation passed with bipartisan congressional support in 2001 was designed to improve the quality of education received by students in the public school system nationwide. With an end goal of 100% proficiency in reading and math for all students by 2014 via steady annual increases in student performance, the act mandated that each state devise their own standardized test to measure academic improvement. 10 years later, however, politicians, master’s degree pundits, and educators of NCLB believe the act has failed in its goal of bridging the achievement gap between minority, low-income students and non-minority students.
One of the main causes of failure has been the state-designed standardized test. Comparisons between state test results and that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a project run in part by the Department of Education that administers nationwide assessments of student knowledge in categories that include math, reading and science, offers evidence supporting claims that states lower the difficulty level of state tests to ensure that their students meet established target performance goals. According to the Commission on No Child Left Behind, as much as 90% of students in some states test as proficient on state NCLB tests while in the same states the proficiency level falls to as low as 25% by NAEP standards. An additional consequence of the constrictive 100% proficiency by 2014 goal is its effect on teaching methods. With test-oriented lesson plans, teachers are forced to compromise the quality of education students receive in order to focus on gearing students towards passing low-standard tests.
The Obama administration has acknowledged these and other flaws with the No Child Left Behind Act. Earlier this year, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, acknowledged before the House education committee that public schools were increasingly failing to meet NCLB requirements. He urged congressional action regarding reforms to both the 2014 proficiency deadline and the general pass/fail grading system for states, in addition to other aspects of the law. Unfortunately, though, the current partisan handicap in Congress has precluded any action on their part. As a result, the Obama administration, via executive orders, has gone ahead with its own reforms.
Duncan has announced that waivers for the 2014 proficiency deadline will be granted to states that have devised and adopted their own reform models that concentrate on “college- and career-ready standards for all students” as well as variegated accountability tests that serve to highlight achievements and isolate failures within the public school system. Additionally, the Obama administration has announced the ESEA flexibility, an avenue of relief for states from NCLB requirements that have served to stifle legitimate more than anything else. States that apply for flexibility will be able to adopt their own models of reform that focus on better academic preparation for students, more accurate measures of performance and reformed teacher and principle evaluations.
Additional measures that should be taken include enforced transparency for accountability reporting as well as increased federal funding for innovative ideas in education reform. With the new goal of reforming education standards to prepare America’s students for higher education and successful careers beyond graduation, the Obama administration is working towards restoring America as the nation with the highest proportion of graduates by 2020, and ESEA Flexibility is the first step.