Education Groups Deepen Proposals for NCLB Overhaul

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - April 2008

As No Child Left Behind reauthorization remains stalled in Congress, education organizations are planning to push for an overhaul that would shift federal law from NCLB's test-and-punish approach toward helping strengthen schools’ capacity to serve all children well. Meanwhile, Virginia passed a bill directing the board of education to consider withdrawing from NCLB, which U.S. House Education Committee Chair George Miller has labeled "the most negative brand in America." Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings proposed a change in NCLB accountability practices that FairTest equated to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Additionally, the Department of Education has appealed a court decision stating that NCLB cannot require states and districts to spend their own funds to carry out the law's mandates.

As recently as two years ago, even far-reaching proposals, such as recommendations from the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA, chaired by FairTest), assumed that the current NLCB framework of standards, assessments and consequences would not likely change. As support for NCLB has waned, political space has opened up to challenge the assumptions on which NCLB has been constructed.

FEA and most groups that have shared their thinking with FairTest are still developing their ideas for redefining the federal role in school improvement. At this early stage, it is clear that common ground exists in the belief that the primary federal role should be to help schools strengthen their capacity to serve all children well. Thus, accountability would serve educational improvement rather than dominate schooling. Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff's book, Moving Every Child Ahead, also supports this position (see review, this issue). Several organizations will release their reports in the coming months.

However, Congressional leadership apparently lags behind educator and public understanding and goals. Thus far, the leadership has been unwilling to address such NCLB sacred cows as the requirement that all students score proficient by 2014, that all students in grades 3-8 be tested annually, that the federal government should mandate "supplemental services," or that Congress should establish a schedule of escalating sanctions for schools and districts that fail to make "adequate yearly progress." FEA has called for major changes to all these requirements.

Congressional leaders are talking about the need to provide more help, but "help" controlled by irrational accountability mandates will continue to damage schools. As jockeying continues over the possible content of a new federal law, it has become increasingly certain that reauthorization will await the next Congress and a new president. While this delay means the current law continues in place, it provides reform advocates time to continue pushing for a more thorough overhaul.

The anger over NCLB shows through such actions as passage of a Virginia bill calling on the state's Board of Education to consider dropping out of NCLB. Opt-out legislation also has passed Arizona's House of Representatives and is headed to the Senate. And in Minnesota, a bipartisan vote in the House K-12 Finance Committee supported ending participation in the law. Legislation had passed single houses in previous years in other states.

Secretary Spellings responded to the growing criticism by proposing to allow some states to modify their accountability structures. A pilot program will allow 10 states to apply different sanctions to schools that have different reasons for not making "adequate yearly progress." The Secretary's comments and a brief memo on the Department's website provided little explanation as to how the program would work. In a news release, FairTest stated that the plan is "a futile effort to rescue a collapsing law" and "the political equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, not changing its misguided course." In practice, many states already appear to be applying differentiated actions since they lack the capacity to intervene in large numbers of schools.

A lawsuit, brought by nine school districts and backed by the National Education Association and state education associations, charges that the law violates a section of NCLB stating that states and districts shall not be required to spend their own funds to carry out the provisions of the act (Sec. 7907(a)). A federal appeals court three-judge panel agreed with the education groups' interpretation of the law (see Examiner, January 2008). The Department of Education has petitioned the full appeals court for a rehearing.

The case is controversial in part because some civil rights groups fear that a decision favoring the school districts could open the door to attacks on a wide variety of civil rights legislation that by some lights create "unfunded mandates," though this case focuses on the meaning of one explicit clause in NCLB.

An eventual appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is considered inevitable. If the plaintiffs win, a federal district court will still have to determine whether, in fact, states and districts are being forced to spend their own funds to carry out NCLB.

- FEA materials are at and

- Spellings' proposal is at


Sidebar: What the Presidential Candidates are Saying About NCLB

Now that the realm of presidential candidates has narrowed, here is an updated summary of the positions on NCLB from Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republican John McCain.

The reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has stalled, making it unlikely anything will happen until a new president takes office (see " Education Groups Deepen Proposals for NCLB Overhaul," Examiner, April 2008). With a growing consensus that NCLB needs major change, the next president will have a critical opportunity to influence the shape and scope of a reauthorized law.

Read more....