Failing Our Children Calls for NCLB Alternative

K-12 Testing

A new, 170-page FairTest report on the first two years of “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) implementation finds that educational quality and equity have been damaged because of the law’s incorrect assumptions and arbitrary requirements. In addition to critiquing NCLB, Failing Our Children outlines a fundamentally different approach to assessment and accountability that would better promote needed school reforms.


“’No Child Left Behind,’ the title of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, describes a worthy goal for our nation. Tragically, NCLB is aggravating, not solving, the real problems that cause many children to be left behind,” the report begins. “NCLB must be overhauled if the federal government is to make a useful contribution to enhancing the quality of education received by low-income and minority group students.” Based on evidence collected from two years of classroom experience around the nation, FairTest documented a series of basic flaws in NCLB, such as:


• The law falsely assumes that boosting test scores should be the primary goal of schools, an approach that has not improved education when implemented by individual states;
• Widespread school “failure” is an inevitable outcome of NCLB’s one-size-fits-all design because of rigid “adequate yearly progress” provisions, which set unrealistic goals for academic gains, punish diversity, and ignore measurement error;
• NCLB’s school transfer policy undermines ongoing reform programs and disrupts the lives of students and teachers. Heavier sanctions required for schools that do not boost test scores have previously been shown to be counter-productive;
• The requirement that limited English proficient students score “proficient” on English exams is self-contradictory, as is the provision that most children with special needs demonstrate competency in the same manner as other students;
• Education is being damaged as students are coached to pass tests rather than taught a rich curriculum that will help prepare them for life in the 21st Century; and
• The federal government has failed to adequately fund the law.


As it now stands, NCLB is based on testing, blaming and punishing. A more helpful accountability system would focus first on building the capacity of teachers, schools and districts to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education that meets their individual needs. Core elements of the accountability systems FairTest proposes to better promote school improvement include:


• Use of multiple forms of evidence of student learning, not just test scores;
• Extensive professional development that enables teachers to better assess and assist their students;
• Incorporation of ongoing feedback to students about their performance to improve learning outcomes;
• Public reporting on school progress in academic and non-academic areas, using a variety of information sources and including improvement plans; and
• Sparing use of external interventions, such as school reorganization, to give reform programs the opportunity to succeed.  


“Assessment systems need to make public schools accountable to parents, students and the local community rather than to distant government bureaucracies,” the report concludes.


The report cited Nebraska’s Student-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) as a superior model for improving schools.  STARS includes state government standards for local assessments, a means to evaluate them, and a structure for ensuring that educational quality rises.


The complete text of Failing Our Children: How No Child Left Behind Undermines Quality and Equity in Education, and An Accountability Model that Supports School Improvement is posted on the web at  Printed copies are available for $30 postpaid from FairTest, 15 Court Square, Suite 820, Boston, MA 02108  02139; summary reports (30 pp) are $10. (See order form p. 31.)