Academic journal article Education Next

Puzzled States: The Success of the No Child Left Behind Act Largely Depends on the States' Willingness and Ability to Implement the Law. Will Washington Grant Them a Hearing?

Academic journal article Education Next

Puzzled States: The Success of the No Child Left Behind Act Largely Depends on the States' Willingness and Ability to Implement the Law. Will Washington Grant Them a Hearing?

Article excerpt

IN JANUARY 2002, PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH signed a comprehensive revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Known popularly as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress, this new legislation promises an important shift in efforts at all levels to improve the quality of public education. Integral to its purpose is an array of tough-minded mandates governing student assessment and school accountability.

Though the federal government is the driving force behind NCLB, the states will ultimately be responsible for its outcome. A critical provision requires every state education department to develop and implement an annual accountability plan. Beginning with the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, each state was required to devise a substantive definition of the skills and knowledge that a child should learn in each grade. States were then to develop tests to examine whether schools and students are meeting the standards. Starting with the 2005-06 school year, NCLB requires that states administer reading and mathematics tests annually in grades 3 through 8. By 2007-08 states will need to assess achievement in science as well. Within 12 years, states are expected to have all their students performing at an academically proficient level in core subject areas.

Each state, district, and school under NCLB will be expected to register"adequate yearly progress" toward meeting these goals. Progress is to be measured both for all students and for students disaggregated into various subgroups, including disadvantaged students, those with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities, and those from racial or ethnic minority populations.

School performance will be publicly reported via state, district, and school"report cards." Schools that do not achieve adequate yearly progress will be subject to increasingly stringent sanctions--notifying all parents of the failure, allowing students to switch schools, and ultimately reorganizing under new leadership. Districts failing to make adequate progress face similar sanctions imposed by states.

Meeting these requirements will pose a major challenge for states lacking much experience with accountability. A recent Education Commission of the States report indicates that just 15 states currently have testing programs that conform to the new requirements (see Figure 1). Many more lack the infrastructure needed to support the level of data collection, disaggregation, and reporting that the new law requires.

Achieving full compliance with the new law may prove a less formidable task in states like Texas and North Carolina, where mature accountability systems are already in place. However, already having some type of accountability structure in place could turn out to be a mixed blessing. In some cases, the challenge may be to sustain whatever public acceptance a previous statewide accountability effort has garnered while making the changes necessary to make it compliant with the new federal guidelines.

The Education Commission of the States has developed a unique database that identifies the extent to which each of the 50 states is meeting the law's requirements. Using the database, we calculated a national average score for NCLB compliance and then assigned each of the 50 states to one of three categories: 1) high-readiness, 2) mid-readiness, and 3) lower-readiness. From these three groupings, we selected three high-readiness states, two mid-readiness states, and three lower-readiness states as case studies. Florida, New York, and Texas fell into the first category; California and South Carolina represented the second; and Missouri, New Hampshire, and Washington the third. Collectively these eight states educate more than 18 million children, nearly 40 percent of the country's school population.

In an effort to identify where individual states are situated as they attempt to conform to the new legislation, we conducted informal, open-ended, structured interviews with key policymakers in each of these states. …

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