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No Child Left Behind: Questions and Answers

No Child Left Behind: Questions and Answers

The phrase, ?No Child Left Behind? (NCLB) has become a catch-phrase for the federal initiative to increase ?accountability? in American education. But while NCLB is a federal program, it will be up to the individual states to create the programs and procedures that fulfill NCLB requirements. (NCLB does not provide funding for most of its new mandates.) As a result, the experiences of individual schools and parents with NCLB may vary significantly.

Regardless of the specifics of the federal law or the states? implementations of that law, it is individual parents and schools who will need to cope with their implications. This article explains the key NCLB provisions, outlines how most schools will need to change to comply with these provisions, and suggests ways that you, your student, and your school can be prepared for the consequences of these changes.

What Is the No Child Left Behind Act?

The No Child Left Behind Act is the name of the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This legislation provides the major source of federal funding for public education in the U.S. and must be reauthorized by Congress every few years. This particular act has been highly publicized for its dramatic emphasis on improving American schools to create more equitable educational opportunities. According to language in the Act, NCLB?s purpose is to ?close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.?? In other words, NCLB is intended to provide all children with a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education. One of the most significant (and controversial) provisions of NCLB is the requirement that states set standards and conduct annual assessments to gauge school districts’ progress in improving students? academic achievement.? Other provisions of NCLB include funding for teacher preparation, special assistance to students with poor reading skills, and support for migrant, neglected, homeless, and delinquent students.

Who Will Be Included in State Assessments?

NCLB directs that states, districts, and schools assume responsibility for all children to achieve state standards?including those with disabilities. States are expected to test and report the progress of various subgroups of students, including students with limited English proficiency, students from each major racial/ethnic group, students with disabilities, and students whose families meet low-income criteria.

What Are the New Requirements of NCLB?

The NCLB Act is very comprehensive. The requirements that will most significantly impact your child?s education include:

  • NCLB requires state departments of education to develop challenging academic content standards and academic assessments. This means you can expect to hear a lot about state academic standards in basic subjects and new or revised state ?standards tests.? Many states already have such standards and testing programs, but NCLB will require more consistency in how tests are used, who takes the tests, and how results are reported for both individual students and schools. The law requires annual testing of children in at least grades 3 though 8 in reading and math by 2005-06; science must be assessed by the 2007-08 school year. This means your children in grades 3-8 will be taking state standards tests every year; many states and districts will include younger and older children in their testing programs.
  • NCLB requires states and districts to provide annual ?report cards? on school performance and teacher quality to parents and the public. You can expect to receive at least annual information from your child?s school, not only about your own child?s progress compared to district and state standards, but about how the school is doing in general in terms of academic achievement and safety.
  • States and local districts must implement policies allowing students to transfer to other, safer schools if they have been victims of violent crimes while at school or if their home school is judged to be ?persistently dangerous.?? It is hoped that this provision will prompt schools to develop programs that reduce violence and bullying and promote a positive learning environment.
  • NCLB has provisions to allow children to transfer out of a school designated as ?in need of improvement? or they may receive ?supplemental services? to remedy their failure to master basic subjects. (I assume there?s no ?magic bag? of free supplemental services. Do we need to elaborate on this? Well, nothing is funded; schools will vary in what they provide and what supports they get from the state. Where there are few supplemental services, then states may transfer kids to other schools. NCLB does fund Title 1 services but not all schools will qualify. I don?t know that we can elaborate generically?.)

How Will States Develop Standards Tests?

Each state will develop its own testing program and set its own standards for achievement. NCLB monitors accountability by tracking each district?s ?annual yearly progress? to ensure that every child learns, every school has the opportunity to improve, and every dollar is spent wisely. All state standards tests must:

  • Reflect the state?s academic standards (test relevant skills);
  • Be valid, reliable, and consistent with professional and technical standards (the tests must be of high quality);
  • Include multiple measures of achievement including higher-order thinking skills and understanding (the test must provide a variety of ways for children to demonstrate what they have learned);
  • Provide accommodations for children with disabilities (allow some modifications in how the test is given and/or how students demonstrate learning);
  • Include students with limited English proficiency (LEP) (When LEP students have attended schools in the USA for three consecutive years, they must be administered in English in reading and language arts.)

How Will Standards Testing Affect My Child?

States and local districts will determine how they will use the results of standards testing to make decisions about individual students and local schools, beyond what is required to determine if schools are meeting the federal mandate to show ?annual yearly progress.? In the best of situations, the results of standards tests will be used to improve curriculum and instruction, to set realistic goals for individual students and schools, and to identify individual student difficulties early so that effective support can be provided. However, a number of ?high stakes? decisions are often based on the results of standards tests?decisions that have significant impact on the individual student, the teacher, and/or the school. These high stakes decisions might include:

  • Promotion or retention: Some states or districts may determine that students who fail one or more standards tests will be retained in grade for the next year. For example, recently the state of Florida announced that over 40,000 third graders would be retained based on their failure to pass the third grade test. Other states might require summer school for students who fail to meet a criterion score on one or more of the state tests. And other states and districts may not use standards tests at all for the purpose of making promotion decisions. Because research demonstrates that retention is not an effective practice, states and districts are encouraged to base promotion decisions on more comprehensive information than standards tests alone. Knowing that a test will be used to determine promotion to the next grade places a high degree of stress on students, teachers, and parents; stress by itself can negatively affect a student?s performance on these tests!
  • High school graduation: A number of states have adopted graduation standards that often include attaining passing scores on state tests. As with promotion decisions, using state tests for this purpose places significant pressure on students, schools, and families and can hinder optimal test performance. Most effective school policies will look at a number of factors in determining if students are eligible for graduation. However ? if your state?s graduation standards require passing a state test, you and your child should begin working with your school and preparing now for this new requirement, while at the same time you might join forces with other parents and educators to try to bring about change in your state?s policy.
  • Placement in programs and classes: Standards tests can serve as a district-wide or school-wide screening program to identify students needing extra help. However, before placing a student into a special program or remedial classroom, parents and schools should consider more than the results on these tests. Attendance, daily work and homework completion, and the quality of student work should be important factors in deciding who needs a special class or different program.
  • Classifying schools as successes or failure: Through NCLB, Congress has established a system of identifying schools that fail to make ?annual yearly progress? and allowing students to transfer out of such schools. Persistent failure, defined as inadequate progress on standards tests, could lead to changes in school administration or other types of ?corrective action? intended to improve achievement overall. Again, such high stakes consequences place considerable pressure on teachers and students, with one risk being ?teaching to the test??putting a lot of emphasis on improving test scores at the expense of broader instructional goals. This makes it particularly important to understand how your state will be implementing any corrective actions based on ?annual yearly progress.? Your local school district is the best source for complete information on your school?s scores and performance on these new tests.

There are benefits of standards tests when they are considered as one part of the ?big picture? of a quality school program:

  • The test results provide an annual ?snapshot? of each student?s progress in learning basic skills. Parents can easily see what their child is accomplishing from year to year and where they might need some additional instruction or practice. Reviewing test results with your child?s teacher is a perfect opportunity to discuss their strengths and weaknesses and how you can help support their learning at home.
  • Annual testing can help schools and parents catch problems early, before the student experiences failure. When mild problems are detected, and when daily work and other activities confirm the results of testing, schools can provide tutoring, different types of instruction, suggestions for homework, etc. to help the child improve skills. Most children who have difficulty on standards tests do not have disabilities and will not need special education; some may need some extra support to meet expectations.
  • Schools can use results for individual classrooms and grade levels to identify areas where staff might need additional training or resources. For example, if the reading scores for third grade lag behind results for other grades, teachers might consider setting aside some time to receive training in effective reading instruction or re-examining the third grade reading curriculum.
  • Districts can use results to identify schools that might need more resources, training, or further evaluation of instruction. For example, if School A?s test results show a much slower rate of progress than other neighboring schools, further consideration of the school?s resources would be warranted, and perhaps additional reading specialists or intensive training in reading or math instruction can be provided. If the school has a large group of students who have been in the U.S. for less than five years, the district might consider providing additional English Language support services to that school.
  • Schools and districts can use test results to help evaluate the effectiveness of a particular curriculum or program. For example, by examining test results over a three-year period, schools can evaluate the effectiveness of a new reading curriculum.

How Can I Learn More About NCLB and Standards Testing?

  • Attend meetings at your child?s school. It is important that both parents and schools understand the implications of NCLB. Chances are that your child?s school will have presentations about your state?s standards tests as well as about testing in the school and district. This would be a good topic for PTA and community meetings.
  • Attend parent-teacher conferences and ask questions about the school?s testing program. Remember that test preparation is likely an ongoing process, not just something that happens at ?test time.? Find out how you can help your child prepare for testing day and develop a positive attitude toward testing.
  • If not already scheduled, ask your child?s teacher or guidance counselor to review test results with you. Ask questions to be sure you understand the results and what they mean for your child?s education. It may also be helpful to ask a teacher or school principal for more details on how your school?s performance compares to state requirements.
  • Contact your state department of education for specific information about the tests used in your state.
  • Refer to the resources below for more information.


Official fact-sheet summary of the legislation:

Official detailed outline of the component programs of NCLB and the changes they will likely create:

Heubert, J. P. & Hauser, R. M. (Eds.). (1999). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. Washington: National Academy Press. Available:

National Association of School Psychologists (2002). Large scale assessments and high stakes ???????? decisions:? Facts, cautions and guidelines. Bethesda, MD: Author. Available online at /factsheets/highstakes_fs.html

National Center for Education Outcomes?????????

This material is adapted from ?No Child Left Behind: A Primer? by Caven McLoughlin, professor of school psychology at Kent State University, to be published by the National Association of School Psychologists in Helping Children at Home and School (Second Edition). © NITV, 2003.

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