Intense Battle Looms over NCLB

Published February 1, 2006

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which marked its fourth birthday January 8, is likely to provoke increasingly intense debate on Capitol Hill throughout 2006. Amid ever-shifting political dynamics, it will be up for congressional reauthorization in 2007. Many questions will arise–indeed, already have–including:

  • Is this latest version of the mammoth education law–originally enacted in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–making enough of a difference in closing the achievement gap for minority-group children?
  • Is it imposing unreasonable demands on state and local school systems?
  • Or is the opposite true: Does NCLB let localities “game” test results to show themselves in the best possible light?

Standards a Concern

NCLB requires states to test children in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. However, in keeping with the principle of federalism, it allows the states to set their own standards and adopt their own tests. Some critics believe this ensures a race to the bottom as states and localities demand less from students in order to avoid having many schools officially designated as “in need of improvement.”

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is willing to be flexible in regulatory enforcement, so long as states remain faithful to NCLB goals. On November 18, she announced a key concession: a pilot project allowing up to 10 states to use a “growth model” showing the improvements individual students are making year to year, rather than measuring them against an absolute benchmark.

Some analysts believe such a “value-added” approach is a fair way to measure progress, but others worry it would lower expectations for disadvantaged children.

All of which leads to even bigger questions: Should NCLB make way for national standards and national tests, such as former president Bill Clinton sought during his administration? Or should the nation stay the course with NCLB, which requires all pupils to be proficient in reading and math skills by 2013?

Choice Progress Slow

Finally, what about school choice? A recent report, “School Choice for Student Success,” published by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, reminded us that public school choice is supposed to have a significant role under the current NCLB. Any child in a school serving a high percentage of students from low-income homes that a state has found to be “in need of improvement” becomes eligible to move to a different public school in the same district.

“A child does not have to come from a low-income family to take part in public school choice,” the authors noted. “In some cases, children may also be able to move to a school outside of their home district.”

However, until moved by the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, Congress was slow to recognize the power of unlimited school choice to bring educational opportunity to all, regardless of location or status. Will the new NCLB build on that principle, or back away from it?

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The full text of “School Choice for Student Success,” is available online at