History and Logic to the Rescue in Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind

Dan Goldhaber and Morgan Polikoff

As published in The Hill, March 23, 2015

More than a dozen years after it was reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is under hot debate.  Why the heat?  Although the act has boosted student achievement (a major goal), not all students demonstrated proficiency on state tests by 2014 (the real endgame). Nor has the act’s aim of making sure all students have access to an effective teacher been met.

The idea floating around Washington right now, with some support from both parties, is that educational accountability ought to be scaled down and passed back from the federal government to the states. This idea sounds good at first blush, but the catch is that many states will likely return to the state of play the law was created to fix—one in which there is little accountability for student achievement and little information about student and school performance.

The current gripe is that federally required testing and accountability are hopelessly flawed endeavors. Many blame the law for narrowing curriculum, punishing schools for factors outside their control, and even outright cheating.

And there is some truth to these concerns.

But the more fundamental truth is that these unintended consequences were anticipated immediately after the law passed in 2001—and help explain why the majority of states were granted Department of Education waivers to implement accountability systems of their own devising. More important, even though little has been done to remedy these flaws in the decade since, straightforward fixes that Congress could apply are on hand.  

Some fixes are easy. For instance, one beef is that the law punishes schools for factors they can’t control—most notably, the types of students they serve. The way around that valid objection is to use growth in student achievement as the primary test-based measure of school performance, not rates of student proficiency. A few states’ waivers for accountability systems do this, but only a few.

Another fear is that the law’s high-stakes atmosphere invites such bad behaviors as focusing too narrowly on what’s likely to pop up on a test or, even worse, outright cheating. Here the answer is broadening the array of indicators used to evaluate schools.

Of course, some fixes are tougher. Much of the pushback on NCLB relates to the quantity and quality of standardized tests. (Full disclosure: separate divisions of AIR, where one of us works, provide student assessment services.) Unfortunately, it’s hard to fix both quantity and quality at the same time.  Measuring more advanced skills naturally takes more testing time than simple multiple-choice exams do. Taking a hatchet to testing time will likely leave us with low-quality tests--a problem nailed by the old saying that “we should measure what we value because we will value only what we measure."

Examples like these don’t suggest that the federal government must create a one-size-fits-all-states accountability policy. But they do suggest that Washington should lay out some general but essential elements for new policy, including measuring student growth (not status) on tests, assessing a broad array of indicators, and employing high-quality assessments. Once some boundaries are set up, states and consortia of districts would still have plenty of flexibility to experiment with alternatives based on local desires.

As Congress takes up reauthorization, the swallow-hard moment may be realizing that any version will be flawed and have some unintended consequences. These are complicated issues. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on making our public schools accountable for student learning. Rather, whatever law passes needs built-in opportunities for tweaks and revisions as the law is put into practice. This way, states won’t have to wait a dozen years if they see something is not working well to help students.

If Congress wants to avoid the kind of missteps that were made 13 years ago when No Child Left Behind passed, it should pass a nimble, thoughtful law that draws on lessons learned since then, especially the documented fact that accountability can help improve outcomes for kids.

Dan Goldhaber directs the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at AIR, and the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington. Morgan Polikoff is an assistant professor of K-12 Policy and Leadership at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.