On the sixth anniversary of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which determines how schools must focus their resources to ensure that all students are meeting grade-level standards by 2014, proponents and critics of the law sparred over how effective it has been in raising student achievement—and what kind of changes should be made later this year, when Congress is scheduled to renew the measure.

President Bush defended the law during a Jan. 7 appearance at Horace Greeley Elementary School in Chicago, though he acknowledged that several changes ought to be made. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize NCLB soon, Bush said, he’ll make as many of these changes as he can on his own.

Bush also said that if Congress does renew the law but weakens it in the process, he’d “strongly oppose it and veto it.”

“Students are achieving record success, with minority students, poor students, and students with disabilities reaching all-time highs in a number of areas,” according to a White House press release on NCLB. “As a result, the achievement gap is beginning to close.”

The White House statement cited gains in reading and math by fourth and eighth graders on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card, released this fall.

Although it’s true that U.S. fourth-grade students posted the highest average reading scores in the history of the exam, eighth graders’ reading scores were only one point higher than in 2005, said the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE)—and nearly 70 percent of all eighth-grade students failed to reach proficiency.

AEE also noted that American 15-year-olds fell two places in international rankings on science and math, according to the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessments—and more than 1.2 million students failed to graduate from high school in the United States last year alone.

“As it stands, NCLB currently does little to address the needs of the nation’s middle and high schools, and until a bill is reauthorized that includes the interventions and supports that these schools and their students need, the educational system will continue to fail millions of American students each year,” the organization said.

The Forum on Educational Accountability, which represents leaders of education, civil rights, civic, and labor groups, went even further in its criticism of the law.

“Since the signing of NCLB . . . reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have stagnated, and the rate of improvement in math has slowed,” the group said. “The neediest children in our nation continue to receive an unequal and inadequate education. Incremental changes will not fix the law’s structural flaws of unrealistic mandates, high-stakes testing, and punitive sanctions.”

As an alternative to NCLB, the forum endorses an approach that would overhaul assessment to reduce testing and support multiple indicators of success, as well as fully funding the Title I provisions of the law.

NCLB requires schools to administer math and reading tests in grades three through eight, and once in high school. Schools that miss testing benchmarks face increasingly stiff sanctions. President Bush regards the law, which took effect in 2002, as one of the signature domestic achievements of his presidency, and he sees expanding NCLB as a key to his legacy.

Among those who favor amending the law, there is broad agreement that NCLB should be changed to encourage schools to measure individual student progress over time, instead of using snapshot comparisons of certain grade levels. There also is a consensus among those advocates that the law should be changed so schools that miss progress goals by a little don’t face the same consequences as schools that miss them by a lot and that the law should be expanded to include greater accountability for high schools.

But deep divisions remain over some proposed changes, including merit pay for teachers and whether schools should be judged based on test scores in subjects other than reading and math, or on other measures of success (such as graduation rates).

Many educators and lawmakers who once supported NCLB now say the law has failed to live up to its promise. One of the law’s lead original authors, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, defended it, praising what he said are modest improvements that have been seen so far. But in an op-ed published in The Washington Post, Kennedy ticked off a series of needed reforms.

Most of all, Kennedy called it “disgraceful” that Bush—his former partner in passing the law—has failed to include adequate funding for school reform in his education budgets. “Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget,” Kennedy wrote.

“Clearly, I don’t agree with that,” responded Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who traveled with Bush to Chicago. She said federal education funding is up about 46 percent since Bush took office.

Bush laid out what he said were some changes he would consider making administratively if lawmakers fail to act: ensuring “that a high school degree means something,” increasing flexibility for states and school districts, providing extra help for struggling schools, and devising an accurate system for measuring high school dropout rates.

“I believe the country needs to build upon the successes” of the law, Bush said. “It’s not worthwhile to guess when a child’s future is at stake.”

The U.S. Department of Education already has taken some steps to meet critics’ concerns. Last month, Spellings granted new flexibility to states and school districts by allowing more states to adopt a “growth model” for measuring individual student achievement over time.

Horace Greeley Elementary School was chosen as the backdrop for Bush to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the law’s signing, because the school reportedly has thrived under NCLB.

The school, where 70 percent of students are Hispanic and 92 percent are low-income, was named a Blue Ribbon School under the program in October, one of just 12 such public schools in the state and 239 across the country. Since 2005, 83 percent of Greeley students have met or exceeded state standards, compared with an average of 64 percent for the entire Chicago Public Schools system.

Even as Bush and Spellings were marking the law’s anniversary, a federal appeals court on Jan. 7 revived a lawsuit challenging NCLB’s funding.

The lawsuit argues that schools should not have to comply with requirements that aren’t funded by the federal government. Plaintiffs include the Pontiac, Mich., school district and eight districts in Texas and Vermont, along with National Education Association (NEA) affiliates in several states.

Chief U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman in Detroit dismissed the lawsuit in November 2005, but a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed Friedman’s ruling in a 2-1 decision.

The NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union, is paying the cost of the appeal.

Links:

No Child Left Behind

White House

Alliance for Excellent Education

Forum on Educational Accountability


National Education Association