Chicago Reforms Provide Lessons to Nation, NCLB

K-12 Testing

The past 15 years of school reform in Chicago provide a cautionary tale for the nation as the consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) begin to take hold, according to a new report. Chicago has experienced first-hand the negative effects of many of NCLB's dominant strategies: overemphasis on standardized tests, punitive labeling and ineffective top-down interventions. Chicago School Reform: Lessons for the Nation also shows that Chicago has experienced the positive effects of local decision-making, adult collaboration and a holistic approach to school improvement.


The report was released by Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), Designs for Change, and FairTest. It is based on many academic studies of nearly two decades of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) change efforts, from positive ones such as the creation of Local School Councils to harmful ones such as extensive grade retention. The report explains how 144 low-income, initially low-performing schools have been steadily improving under their own leadership and planning, while more than 100 other, initially-similar schools have failed to show sustained improvement under CPS central office mandates and interventions.


The report concludes with recommendations including:

  • ending high-stakes testing and punitive accountability, coupled with improved assessments;
  • providing increased and more equitable funding;
  • establishing means to share best practices among schools; and
  • strengthening professional development for educators and parental involvement. 

While the recommendations are specific to Chicago, the lessons can be applied to the forthcoming re-authorization of NCLB. The recommendations for reducing the impact of tests and improving school quality are consistent with the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB (see story, this issue).


The report is available on the web at and This is the second school-reform report that connects assessment issues to other aspects of improving schools that FairTest has helped write over the past year. The other is the report of the Massachusetts Campaign for the Education of the Whole Child.