NCLB Reauthorization: The Battle Over Content

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - October 2007

The House Education Committee draft bill to reauthorize "No Child Left Behind" incorporated some Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) goals, usually in a weakened form. But the proposal retained a test-based accountability system rather than shift to the balanced system FEA advocated.

The FEA proposal would balance demonstrated school and district progress toward implementing systemic reforms, such as professional development and parental involvement, with outcome measures, including multiple assessments and other indicators, tied to reasonable expectations of improvement.

The House draft did include a pilot project on local assessments; a modest step toward the use of multiple indicators to determine school progress; and positive changes to the sanctions provisions, with more emphasis on assistance. However, the House did not tackle "adequate yearly progress," remained too heavily focused on test results, and kept unhelpful sanctions.

The overall flawed NCLB framework remains intact: By retaining NCLB's use of test-based accountability to force school "improvement," NCLB does the opposite, narrowing curriculum and blocking needed educational improvement. Only strong public pressure on Congress can produce real change. The needed changes include:

  • Adequate yearly progress: NCLB mandates that almost all students score "proficient" by 2014. Research in 11 states confirms that most schools will fail to make AYP under the current requirements. Despite this looming disaster, neither the House nor Senate education committee appears ready to grapple with this issue, except through measures to slow the failure rate, such as can be found in the House draft. Those measures will help suburban schools, but most urban and poor rural areas will continue to fail. One problem is that touching this issue leaves politicians open to charges they are willing to "leave some children behind." Nonetheless, FEA and others, continue to push members of Congress to adopt a far-reaching alternative. (See FairTest policy brief, "Should NCLB Force Most Schools to 'Fail'? A Solution to a Looming Crisis.")
  • Multiple indicators: The House draft includes an "extra credit" approach through which a school can use progress on other indicators, including other subjects and graduation rates, to make AYP. The Committee probably will mandate inclusion of graduation rates. However, the draft gives other indicators little weight. The gains needed to obtain "full credit" will be very hard to reach so it is unlikely most states will take advantage of the provisions. Advocates maintain that a weighted composite indicator in which a variety of factors are included, giving reading and math a large percent of the weight, would be more useful to combat curriculum narrowing. Even then there are dangers because in most states, subject area indicators will be standardized tests that will undermine high-quality curriculum and instruction in those subjects - another indication of the unhelpful choices imposed by the NCLB structure.
  • Multiple, local and performance assessments: The House draft incorporated most of the provisions of a strong bill introduced by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), but the committee draft weakened it. Under pressure from supporters of high-stakes testing, the committee reportedly has backed away even further. The draft would create a pilot for 15 states to develop systems of local assessments, such as Nebraska's, but indications are this will be reduced to seven. More states could join later, but still only a small fraction of states could participate during the five years of the next authorization. States would have to have a statewide assessment, but the local assessments could provide the full score used to determine AYP in a subject. Perhaps to undermine this provision, the Bush Department of Education renewed its attacks on Nebraska's system, withdrawing the state's provisional NCLB approval. If Nebraska is not approved, it might not be allowed to participate in the House's plan. This would no doubt discourage other states from entering the pilot.
  • Mandated annual tests: The House draft did not alter NCLB's requirement for testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Several separate bills in the Senate, notably one introduced by Senators Feingold and Leahy, would allow states to test once each in grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12. An amendment during House markup is likely to propose a similar schedule.
  • Professional development: FEA views professional development as integral to school quality. Local schools should largely define and control it, based on their needs. Current law and the House draft treat professional development as something to purchase or to have delivered, a form of professional development that educators typically find unhelpful. However, the House draft does improve the kinds of activities eligible for federal support.
  • English language learners (ELL): The House committee draft makes some improvements but perpetuates the incorrect idea that a test-based accountability model can work for students who are not studying in their native language and still learning English. New standardized tests are unlikely to solve the problem of validly and reliably assessing these students, who comprise most of the nation's ELLs. In addition, ELLs who do become proficient in English leave the group, while new students who are not proficient enter. This guarantees the group will never make AYP, particularly as the requirement for 100% proficiency draws near. The Institute for Language and Education Policy therefore calls for a different approach to accountability for ELLs, similar to the FEA's proposal for balanced accountability.
  • Students with disabilities (SWD): FEA says the new law should continue to ensure that all children with disabilities are included in all assessments in a balanced accountability system. It should empower and train individualized education plan (IEP) teams to determine which assessments and accommodations are most appropriate for individual students. The IEP itself is not used for accountability.
  • Funding: Schools serving low-income children remain underfunded. The new law may authorize increased spending levels, but observers believe Congress will only appropriate small increases. Appropriations are now about half the authorized levels, and the Bush administration has opposed funding increases. The House draft includes new mandates, numerous pilot programs, and expansion of such areas as professional development. If appropriations do not increase, the mandates could remain, and the pilots (including local assessments) may be unfunded. FairTest believes more funding for a bad law, such as NCLB, would not transform it into a good law. Congress should overhaul the law, and then appropriate enough funds to ensure every eligible child can be served and to pay for its mandates, pilots and improvements.


  • FEA materials are at They include one-page comparisons of the House draft to FEA proposals in a simple side x side format, one on accountability and one on professional development.
  • FairTest's "Should NCLB Force Most Schools to 'Fail'? is on the web at
  • Institute for Language and Education Policy is on the web at