What Next for NCLB?

K-12 Testing

Shortly after the last 2004 ballot was counted, President George W. Bush began pushing to extend the annual No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing mandate to grades 9 to 11 (see story, p. 1). In Congress, several bills have been introduced to make modest changes in some of NCLB’s most draconian provisions. Forthcoming reports from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Public Education Network are expected to signal still-rising concern over NCLB’s misuse of testing, impossible growth requirements, and punitive sanctions, as well as the law’s underfunding and bureaucratic intrusiveness. What is likely to happen with all these crosscurrents as Congress moves toward the 2006 elections and the required 2007 reauthorization of the law?


Many expect Bush’s call for more testing to face hard going, even in a Congress controlled by his own party. Already some leading Members, in both houses and from both parties, have said they oppose expanded testing. With very tight budgets, growing local opposition, little to gain from supporting more testing, and the president focusing on Social Security and the war in Iraq, there are real questions as to whether Bush will expend political capital to win this fight. His new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, seen as a main architect of NCLB, has been mostly a behind-the-scenes force. It is unknown how effective she will be in a more open political arena.


On the other side, no member of Congress or lobbyist with whom FairTest has talked believes any major changes in the current law are likely to advance in the near future. The status quo for this year and probably next is the most likely result.


However, in every state, schools will be required to have more students reach the “proficient” level in 2005 than in 2004 to comply with Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) provisions. In some, such as South Carolina, a huge leap is required, from fewer than 20 percent of students to more than one third needing to score proficient. The number of failing schools is likely to escalate dramatically next year, reaching further into the suburbs and middle-class schools. This is likely to strengthen opposition to NCLB in the year leading up to Congressional mid-term elections, and could well lead to stronger action in state legislatures. Members of Congress running for re-election–most of whom voted for NCLB–may feel the need to tell their constituents they are working to address the law’s flaws.


However, any “fix” that does not address the clearly impossible requirement for all students to be proficient by 2014 will not solve the underlying problem. Some fixes, such as the use of test-score “growth” models or allowing states to exclude more students with disabilities, may buy time. But each comes with problems, such as the opposition of the disability rights community.


In NCLB’s reauthorization year, Bush will be a true lame duck. Congress will doubtlessly change after mid-term elections. While the next major leap in numbers of students having to score proficient will not occur in many states until 2008, that deadline will not be far away. Thus, the damaging consequences of test-based accountability – narrowed curriculum, pushouts and dropouts, cheating and data manipulation – coupled with continued anger over underfunding and federal intrusiveness, are likely to create a crisis by the time of NCLB’s 2007 reauthorization.


FairTest has been working with education, civil rights and other organizations at national and local levels to craft alternatives to the current law (see Examiner, Fall 2004, Spring-Summer 2004). The alliance of such forces can play a key role in ensuring a far better, child and education friendly law in 2007 than Bush and the Congress enacted in 2001.


The first step, as dozens of groups have recognized, is to block expansion of NCLB to more high school grades. Contact your Senators and Representatives.


• The Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB and the draft Principles for Authentic Accountability are on the web at www.fairtest.org


• Reach members of Congress through www.visi.com/juan/congress/