Many Forms of NCLB Resistance

K-12 Testing

The Bush administration’s failure to fully fund the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is by now a well-known problem. Less well-known but more significant are a range of challenges and critiques leveled by educators, parents, civil rights advocates and even conservative commentators, who argue that there is an urgent need for fundamental changes to the law’s approach to education reform.


One Falls Church, Virginia, school’s bold stance underscores the view that, by making test scores the only gauge of school improvement, NCLB undermines the school’s commitment to help “kids to grow up to be literate problem-solvers.” A letter to parents from Principal Jean Frey warned that Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences may be labeled failing under NCLB. Nevertheless, Frey pledged that the school will continue to teach children how to think like scientists and historians, even though “this is not what standardized tests measure or encourage.” Parents were reported to be overwhelmingly supportive of Frey’s stance.


Bailey’s Elementary joins a steadily growing list of resisters and critics. In October 2004, for example, a group called Connecticut Voices for Children and Yale University law students released a report based on surveys of 300 local school officials in New Haven, West Hartford, Meriden and New Milford. Respondents said they believe the NCLB is not adequately funded, is unfair to special education and non-English speaking students, and includes penalties that hurt student achievement (online at


In September 2004, Results for America, a project of the nonprofit Civil Society Institute (CSI), launched a web site to convey the breadth of NCLB opposition to policymakers and the media ( Visitors to the site can access hundreds of local newspaper articles and sort them by state and eight NCLB topics, such as “narrowing of curriculum” and “unintended negative consequences of NCLB.”


“The national debate about NCLB is taking place in a way that is almost completely divorced from what is actually going on out there at the grassroots in the schools where NCLB is not working and is creating huge headaches and disparities,” CSI President Pam Solo said.


A group called the National Mobilization for Great Public Schools, backed by the National Education Association (NEA), and other groups (including FairTest), organized a nationwide night of house parties and then a call-in day to Congress in September 2004, seeking better funding of public education and NCLB.


Across the country, local districts continue to debate whether federal education funds are worth the costs of compliance. In Illinois, two districts rejected more than $200,000 in Title 1 funds between them, saying the funds came with too many strings attached. Districts in Virginia, Connecticut, and Vermont have also rejected Title I funds or found other ways to avoid compliance with NCLB strictures.


On the Right
Criticism of NCLB is now cropping up across the political spectrum. Writing for the Phi Delta Kappan, Frederick M. Hess and Chester F. Finn, known for their support of vouchers and charter schools as well as NCLB, found the law’s tutoring and transfer provisions wanting. They noted that NCLB’s transfer provision offers few real options for most students in failing schools and that NCLB’s “perverse” consequences include the possibility that “students who move may aggravate the AYP prospects of both the sending and receiving school.” They explained that NCLB choice mechanisms are unlikely to push schools to improve. And they described “immense confusion” resulting from conflicts between NCLB and existing state accountability systems, Florida being a famous example.


Rep. Ted Strickland (D-OH) told an Ohio rally in October, “The No Child Left Behind Act has been called a lot of things. I have a new name for it — No Child Left Untested.” He concluded, “the way tests are used today... I believe is abusive to students.”
The National Education Association has compiled a list of 26 bills seeking to improve NCLB that were sponsored by a total of 186 different Members of Congress. All these and any other legislative efforts must be filed anew in the coming session of Congress.