No Child Left Behind Act Essay

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The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the most significant and controversial change in federal education policy since the federal government assumed a major role in education in the 1960s. It expands the federal role in education, requires states to develop and implement a test-based accountability system based on criteria established by the federal government, and specifies a timeline for when students must demonstrate proficiency as measured by reading and mathematics assessments. For those schools not meeting the state defined proficiency criteria, the law contains funding set asides and sanctions based on theories of competition as a strategy for school reform. To meet these requirements, it promises large increases in federal aid.

NCLB reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Since its inception in 1965, Title I of the ESEA has embodied the federal government’s commitment to providing compensatory educational services for economically disadvantaged schools and districts and has served as the primary vehicle for improving educational opportunities for low-income students. NCLB continues this commitment and intends to close “the achievement gaps between high and low-performing children, especially the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students, and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers” (NCLB, 2002, Sec. 1001 [3]). In this regard, NCLB differs from previous reauthorizations of ESEA by requiring all schools and districts to implement a single statewide accountability system that requires equal educational outcomes. This entry looks at the law’s accountability requirements and the relationship between the state and federal governments that it requires.

Accountability Requirements

The adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirements are the primary mechanism in NCLB for bringing all students to proficiency and for closing the achievement gap. AYP is used to determine school, district, and state progress toward increasing academic achievement. States are required to determine a definition of AYP that is based on test scores on reading and mathematics assessments and includes graduation rates for high schools and an additional indicator, such as attendance, for elementary and middle schools.

NCLB requires that all schools and all students meet an absolute level of performance on reading and mathematics assessments and reach the same academic standards by the 2013–2014 school year. To meet that requirement, states must establish a starting point and “annual measurable objectives,” or AMOs, that indicate the minimum percentage of students that must demonstrate proficiency on state assessments. The AMOs increase in a stair-step progression over the twelve-year timeline until the states reach the 100 percent proficiency mark.

The NCLB proficiency requirements are applied to all subgroups of students. The law defines “subgroups” as economically disadvantaged students, students from major racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency. In addition, NCLB requires that 95 percent of students, and 95 percent of students in each subgroup within a school, take the state assessments. A school or district can fail to make adequate yearly progress if a single subgroup of students does not meet the proficiency targets or the participation requirements. A school or district is identified for improvement if it does not make AYP for two consecutive years. Schools designated as needing improvement are subject to sanctions based on the number of years during which they have needed improvement. While the law’s requirements apply to all schools, only Title I schools are subject to the law’s sanctions for not making AYP.

These AYP requirements are more stringent than those of its predecessor, the Improving America’s School Act of 1994 (IASA). Under IASA, states used a compensatory model of accountability, in which high scores in one subject area compensated for low scores in another subject. The performance of one subgroup of students did not cause an entire school to fail to make AYP, nor was there a timeline for ensuring that all students met the proficiency targets. In contrast, NCLB uses a conjunctive accountability model, which requires each subgroup of students to meet the same minimum proficiency levels, regardless of previous performance. It also imposes a timeline for all students to reach 100 percent proficiency. Because of the multiple ways that a school can fail to make AYP, there is the risk of over identification of some schools as needing improvement.

Research suggests that the core components of AYP—mean proficiency, subgroup rules, and participation rate requirements—pose particular challenges for diverse schools and high-poverty schools. The NCLB requirement that all schools and students meet the same mean proficiency level does not take into account initial differences in student performance. Thus, students that start further behind have to make large gains to meet the state’s proficiency targets. The subgroup rules, while they provide information on how different groups of students are performing, require students in high poverty and racially diverse schools to meet multiple performance targets. Combined with the participation rate requirements, the subgroup rules create multiple performance and participation rate targets. Since a school can be identified for improvement for failing to meet either the performance or participation targets for a single subgroup, the more diverse a school is, the more targets it must meet.

Federal-State Relationships

Education is typically viewed as a state and local responsibility, particularly in areas related to core educational functions. NCLB moved this relationship in the direction of expanding the federal role over states, while strengthening the role of states over local districts. By expanding the federal role in education, the act ensured that the federal rather than state accountability requirements defined which schools were failing and which were successful. NCLB affected governance arrangements within a state by favoring state education agencies and chief state school officers over the governor, legislature, and state and local school boards. It gave state education agencies the authority to define what counts as proficiency and to intervene in local schools and districts that do not meet the proficiency targets.

Finally, NCLB introduced the market principle that competition would create incentives for low performing schools to improve. There was a shift in focus from the idea that schools needed greater capacity or resources to the idea that capacity was sufficient and the lack of success was due to lack of choice and competition. It advanced a model of school improvement based on external accountability and the premise that external pressure would prod schools systems to take the actions needed to improve achievement among poor and minority students. While prior reforms emphasized equalizing or building the capacity of low-performing schools (i.e., attending to differences in teacher salaries, teacher quality, teacher-pupil ratios, per-pupil expenditures, teacher turnover, and curriculum quality and rigor), NCLB operated on the assumption that capacity was sufficient and that external pressure and sanctions, combined with more choice and competition, would improve schools.


  1. Fuller, B., Gesicki, K., Kang, E., & Wright, J. (2006). Is the No Child Left Behind Act working? The reliability of how states track achievement. Berkeley, CA: Policy Analysis for California Education, University of California, Berkeley.
  2. Harris, D. H., & Herrington, C. D. (2006). Accountability, standards, and the growing achievement gap: Lessons from the past half-century. American Journal of Education, 112, 209–238.
  3. Kim, J. S., & Sunderman, G. L. (2005). Measuring academic proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act: Implications for educational equity. Educational Researcher, 34, 3–13.
  4. Lee, J. (2006). Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth look into national and state reading and math outcome trends. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.
  5. Linn, R. L. (2003). Accountability: Responsibility and reasonable expectations. Educational Researcher, 32, 3–13.
  6. Linn, R. L. (2005). Conflicting demands of No Child Left Behind and state systems: Mixed messages about school performance. Educational Policy Analysis Archives 13(13). Retrieved June 28, 2005, from
  7. No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 USC §§6301 et seq. (2002).
  8. Sunderman, G. L. & Kim, J. S. (2005). The expansion of federal power and the politics of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers College Record. Available from
  9. Sunderman, G. L., Kim, J. S., & Orfield, G. (2005). NCLB meets school realities: Lessons from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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