The No Child Left Behind Act, often abbreviated as NCLB, is a 2001 federal law designed to improve the quality of American education. The Act required all states to design basic assessment tests to be administered to students statewide. Technically, NCLB is an optional program, and each state is free to decline. However, states that do not participate in the program will not be given federal funding. This practice was previously used to push through a mandatory national speed limit (later repealed), and to date, all states have chosen to adopt NCLB rather than lose much-needed federal funding.
Each state is free to develop its own assessment test and set its own standards. All public schools are required to participate in the program, although private schools and homeschooled students are exempt.
In addition to requiring basic skills testing for students, the Act also requires that teachers demonstrate a high level of competence in their subjects. This can be demonstrated in various ways. Finally, the Act requires schools to release student information to military recruiters unless the student or parent specifically opts out.
Under the terms of NCLB, students in grades 3 through 8 must take an annual standardized test in math and reading. A test must also be administered at least once during high school. Science testing is currently being phased in as well.
Each state may set its own standard for acceptable scores. Schools are then rewarded with additional federal funds if their test scores meet or exceed the state standard. Lower-performing schools do not receive as much funding, although programs are in place to provide the lowest-performing schools with money for remediation.
According to many critics, NCLB has reduced the complicated and all-important role of education to a series of tests. Because federal funding is tied to test results, schools have a vested interest in making sure that students pass at almost any cost. Various states and schools have been accused of lowering standards and marginalizing or even forcing out children who cannot keep up. There is great concern that students who do not perform well may be arbitrarily shunted into special education tracks, as schools are entitled to waivers for up to 1% of their students on the basis of disability.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is concern that gifted and talented students are being ignored. The current system does not reward individual performance that is high above the norm. There is concern that in the quest to get every student to meet a certain standard, the needs of gifted students are neglected.
"Teaching to the test" has become a complaint of teachers and school administrators. As schools fight to meet state standards, there is less room in class schedules for subjects that are not assessed, such as foreign languages, social studies, history and physical education, as well the arts.
The Bottom Line
NCLB is extremely controversial, though political leaders are calling for its outright repeal. Many hope that the law will be amended, maintaining basic standards of accountability while allowing more freedom for states and individual schools to create educational plans that better meet the needs of their students, and providing additional funding to implement NCLB's goals.