Test Scores Up, But Some Students Still Being Left Behind
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
In its first three years, the federal No Child Left Behind Act has succeeded in raising students' test scores in reading and math in 36 states and is narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students in half the country, a new study finds.
But at least 6,000 of the nation's worst-performing schools still are failing to show improvement, and state educators report they lack the money, know-how and teachers needed to meet President Bush's goal to have every student reading and doing math at grade level by 2014, concludes the report released March 23 by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
The most comprehensive national study to date of the 2001 education law gives ammunition to both supporters and critics of the federal government's new role in K-12 education. Public schools, traditionally overseen by states, now must follow strict new federal rules imposing yearly standardized tests and penalties for schools that fail to improve test scores.
The 200-page report identifies early signs that NCLB is achieving progress in improving public education, but it also highlights warning signs that educators say undermine the future success of the law. The report is based on a survey of education officials in 49 states (Oklahoma refused to participate), a national survey of 314 school districts and in-depth case studies of 36 districts. The report, " From the Capital to the Classroom: Year 3 of the No Child Left Behind Act," includes a state-by-state analysis.
The most common concern -- shared by state and local education officials in 42 states -- was that states lack adequate funding to provide the expertise, tools and teachers needed to help schools that are failing to show improvement. Currently, more than 6,000 schools -- about 13 percent of schools nationwide -- have failed to meet NCLB standards in each of the past three years.
In addition, a majority of education officials said that accountability requirements for students who have disabilities or are still learning English are unrealistically high and should be changed or eliminated.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is a wonderful piece of legislation for identifying problems, but it is a weak act at solving those problems," Jack Jennings, the center's president and chief executive officer, said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. March 23.
The stakes are getting higher and the consequences more severe for each additional year schools fail to meet improvement standards set by NCLB, which calls for regular testing of math and reading in grades 3 through 8 and imposes penalties on schools that fail to improve test scores of students in all racial and demographic groups for two consecutive years. Penalties range from allowing students to transfer to higher-scoring schools to providing extra tutoring to facing state takeover.
The report comes amid a flurry of state legislative activity criticizing and challenging NCLB. Sixteen states have introduced NCLB legislation this year ranging from requests for more funding and flexibility from the federal government to outright rejection of the federal mandate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NCSL, which represents lawmakers in all 50 states and has been an outspoken critic of the federal education law, last month concluded after a 10-month study that the federal law is unworkable and called for more than 40 changes to fix it.
In the toughest slap at the federal education law this year, Utah's House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill last month that calls for the state's own testing regimen to take precedence over NCLB testing mandates. The state Senate agreed to postpone a vote on the popular measure until April 20, to allow state education officials time to negotiate a compromise with the federal government.
A majority of states reported that lack of funding and too few teachers is a serious problem that could undermine the success of NCLB. The report found that although NCLB has saddled schools with increasing expenses and mounting federal demands, most school districts got less federal money this year than last school year, and the federal education budget stands to be cut in 2006, according to Bush's budget request.
- States most often cited the NCLB accountability requirements for disabled and non-English speaking students as their greatest challenge. NCLB requires that these two subgroups take the same tests and meet the same targets as other students, a requirement state and local officials called "unfair, unrealistic, inappropriate and instructionally meaningless."
- States reported progress in complying with NCLB's requirement that core academic classes be taught only by highly qualified teachers by the end of next school year. However, school districts reported that schools with the highest percentages of poor and minority students are most likely to lack highly qualified teachers.
- In response to NCLB, many school districts have increased the mandatory amount of time spent on reading and math, according to the report. But these increases came at a cost to other subject areas: 27 percent of districts reported they greatly or somewhat reduced social studies, 22 percent reported reducing science, and 20 percent reported reducing class time for art and music.