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The challenges of NCLB: some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act are causing more chaos than cures and driving teachers, parents and administrators mad.

Montgomery High School in New Jerseyhas a record many schools would envy. Nestled in the shadows of prestigious Princeton University, the suburban school boasts one of the top average SAT scores in the state. It has been recognized by the United Nations, won the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Award and several state championships in science, math and chemistry. Yet, Montgomery fails to meet the goals of a new federal education law and faces being labeled as a school "in need of improvement" because two of its 29 special education students did not show up to take the 11th grade test.

The federal law is asking schools to meet new and challenging expectations in performance or encounter consequences, such as having to offer school choice or turn over operations to the state. Montgomery's case is not an oddity, though. Many education experts estimate that over the next few years, thousands of schools across the country--possibly all schools--could face a similar situation.

State legislators have been wrestling with the No Child Left Behind Act since its passage in 2001. President Bush's first major piece of legislation created an historic new level of federal involvement and funding in state and local education. State legislators have embraced the primary goal of the act--to raise overall student performance and close the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their counterparts. And states certainly can use the new federal money for education--over $20 billion--as they continue to struggle with significant budget cuts.

At the same time, policymakers are worried about how federal requirements--aspects of which states already have in place--will affect state education reform.

"It [NCLB] has made us stop what we were doing as a state and focus on compliance," says Senator Jane O'Hearn, who is supportive of the law, but concerned about the impact it will have on New Hampshire.

As we approach its two-year anniversary, the implications of the law are becoming clear. Although legislators are still generally supportive of its intent, instances like Montgomery are occurring around the country, placing lawmakers in the middle of controversy, confusion and concern.


At the heart of the law lies the ambitious goal that states improve student performance so that all children reach a "proficient" level of education by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools must make continuous improvements, also know as adequate yearly progress (AYP), in reading and math test scores for grades three through eight and once at the high school level.

The law was aptly named for its focus on low performing "subgroups" of students. Students with disabilities, limited English proficiency, low-income or certain racial backgrounds are receiving considerable attention. Under the yearly progress requirements all subgroups in a school must make the same improvements in test scores as other students.

Entire schools fail the federal criteria if any subcategories of students do not meet the same performance standards as their counterparts. Generally, schools must have around 30 students in one of these categories for them to comprise a subgroup. The more diverse or the larger a school, the more subcategories there will be. Schools will face sanctions if they do not meet improvement benchmarks in the test scores of all students for two consecutive years.

The first list of schools not meeting the new requirements were identified in each of the states this summer. Nearly 90 percent of Florida's public schools missed the federal criteria, including 78 percent of the schools ranked "A" under the state accountability system. In addition, 80 percent of the schools in Idaho; 77 percent of the schools in South Carolina; and 66 percent of the schools in Alabama and New Jersey did not make sufficient progress. The majority of states reported rates around 50 percent.

"Ninety-two percent of our students go on to college, and we are not going to pass the federal standards because of the requirements for students with disabilities and English language learners," says Superintendent Stan Scheer of Littleton, Colo. "These children are in these programs because of developmental issues, not because of a problem with our standards. Using this to suggest that schools aren't getting the job done is just simplistic."

In addition, NCLB requires schools to ensure that 95 percent of the student body and each subgroup take the state tests. This requirement is particularly difficult to meet considering that the average daily attendance in most schools is less than 95 percent, especially for high schools.

Representative Mark Takai is trying to deal with the fact that all the high schools in Hawaii failed the federal requirement. "Despite what the federal government says about our high schools, some of them are doing remarkably well," Takai said. "This requirement to test at least 95 percent of the students in 18 specific groups is designed to make all the schools fail," said the nine-year legislative veteran. "How can the federal government fail an entire school just because one student chooses not to take the exam?"

In Dobie Junior High School in Texas, only 94.8 percent of the low-income students were tested in math. Consequently, that school was labeled "in need of improvement" and must now offer school choice to all its students. Likewise, New Jersey's Ridgewood High School--which had an average SAT score of 1174--failed because three of its students with disabilities did not take the required test.

"NCLB is a narrowly defined and politically driven policy that is creating chaos in our schools," says Ridgewood Superintendent John Porter Jr. "The public is so confused because it has created a ludicrous series of criteria that doesn't necessarily reflect the school's performance. This is a well-intended, morally right bill, but it is being poorly implemented." For these schools, there would have been a different outcome if only a few more students had been in class on that day.


Schools that fail to meet the federal goals for two consecutive years must first offer students the choice to attend another school in their district. Districts and receiving schools need the teachers and space to accommodate these transfers, and that is proving to be a problem. Some 365 Chicago schools had to offer school choice this fall for failing to meet the requirements of NCLB's predecessor, the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994. The city received nearly 19,000 transfer requests, however, it only had room for 1,035, or less than 6 percent, of those students. Likewise, New Orleans could accommodate only 40 percent of the students requesting transfers.


U.S. Secretary of Education Rodney Paige has been adamant that a lack of capacity cannot prevent students from attending another school. Yet, rural states, for example, may simply have no schools to offer as alternatives. In urban schools, such as those in New York City, students are being forced to sit on floors, class sizes are ballooning to nearly 40 children, and special education classes are exceeding the legal limit of 12. New Orleans is trying to prevent a similar situation by denying transfer requests because class sizes in receiving schools are violating state-mandated student-teacher ratios. This places legislators in a complicated predicament between complying with the federal mandates, adhering to state laws and doing what is best for students.

Schools labeled in need of improvement for two consecutive years must also offer supplemental services to students. This means additional tutoring and remedial classes. Parents of children who need supplemental services often don't request them. Only 11 percent of eligible students in Chicago and 10 percent in Atlanta signed up for the free tutoring. And many rural schools simply do not have supplemental service providers.

More drastic sanctions will be imposed on schools that continue to miss the federal goals, which could ultimately end in state takeover.


A few states actually are reporting fairly low failure rates. Kansas identified only 13 percent and Missouri only 8 percent of schools failing to make progress. The difference in the number of schools failing to meet the federal goals is due to the different approaches states are taking.

For one, states can set their own standards of performance under adequate yearly progress. The higher the standards, the harder it is for all students to reach. With lower standards, states have fewer schools and students needing supplemental services or requesting choice, but they also face the stigma of having lower standards. Upon seeing a large number of failing schools, states may be tempted to lower their standards or rework their numbers to lessen the effect. In fact, Colorado and Louisiana are including the lower categories of "partially proficient" and "basic" from their state assessments in their federal definition of proficiency. Other differences in implementation include using "confidence intervals," or margins of error, to count students as proficient as long as they are close to the cut scores or allowing students to take tests several times before including them in the AYP report.


Another challenge for states is improving the quality of their teachers to meet NCLB's standard of "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year. States are allowed to set their own definitions, but, at a minimum, the federal law requires that they hold a bachelor's degree, not be teaching on waivers or temporary provisions, and be state-certified or have passed a state licensing exam.

In addition, middle and high school teachers must prove competency in every subject they teach either by completing coursework equivalent to a major, passing a state assessment or meeting a rigorous standard of evaluation. Inner-city and rural schools will be particularly challenged by the highly qualified requirement. Lower salaries, difficult environments and more challenging classrooms make attracting and keeping good teachers troublesome. And in many cases, hard-to-staff schools are forced to ask teachers to teach a variety of subjects. For some teachers, this could mean proving competency in half a dozen subjects or more.

Some states are offering financial incentives such as bonuses, tax credits or loan forgiveness to attract and retain teachers in hard to staff schools and to subject areas where there is a shortage (i.e., science and math instructors).


Despite the approval of all 50 plans that states submitted to the U.S. Department of Education outlining how they will meet the AYP requirements, negotiations between the feds and the states will continue over the next several years. In fact, only about a dozen states have received full approval of their plans. States will continue to work with the federal government to finalize the details. As Nebraska Senator Pamela Redfield says, "everything is negotiable" at this point. It may be beneficial for legislators to be aware of what their state is seeking and what flexibility other states are being granted.

Over the next couple years, the benchmarks for adequate yearly progress will increase and additional testing and teacher requirements go into effect. This could cause more schools to fail the federal requirements. State help to improve student performance by providing technical assistance to underperforming schools may be the key to meeting these mandates.

States and districts can help schools analyze data, offer professional services, and develop effective reforms to improve student performance.

But legislators will have to find the resources to provide these services at a time when state budgets are being reduced and administrative positions eliminated. In short, states have their work cut out for them. "While differences about funding levels always linger, we need to stay positive and use this law to make a difference for all kids," says South Dakota Representative Phyllis Heineman. "If we are really serious about 'leaving no child behind,' all of us must assume the responsibility of making this law work."


While the No Child Left Behind requirements apply to all schools, only those that get Title I federal funds (money for low-achieving students in high-poverty schools) face federal sanctions, such as having to offer school choice or supplemental services.

This has caused some states to look at how Title I money is disbursed and shift the federal funding around so fewer schools face such sanctions.

Four districts in Vermont are considering shifting Title I funding away from schools that are likely to fail. This ensures the districts of allocating full Title 1 funding to their other schools and not risk the expense of having to provide supplemental services to the failing schools.

Two Connecticut towns are considering refusing Title I funds. They question whether the money they receive is worth the costs to comply.

This is a question also being asked at the state level. A few states are looking at opting out of the entire law and returning all federal funding for elementary and secondary education. No state has come to a consensus on such a move, but legislation has been considered in Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire and, most recently, Utah.

Although federal funding accounts for only about 9 percent of a state's education budget, current financial woes make it tough to refuse.


Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress will face the following consequences:

2 YEARS--Get labeled "in need of improvement," must allow students to choose another school in the district, and must be provided with technical assistance from the state.

3 YEARS--Receive state-financed supplemental services, such as additional tutoring and remedial services usually in reading, math or science.

4 YEARS---Must replace school staff, institute a new curriculum, extend the school year or school day, or restructure the internal organization.

5 YEARS--Must reopen as a charter school, replace all or most of the staff, enter into a contract with an entity such as a private management company, turn over operations to the state or undergo major restructuring.













Scott Young tracks education issues for NCSL.
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Author:Young, Scott
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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