On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into federal law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The act assists the states in raising K–12 student achievement. Under the law, NCLB requires states, if they are to retain the federal contribution to their education budgets, to improve their academic standards and achievement results. To attain the standards, schools can align their curricula and tests to reflect state standards. Required public reporting of results helps citizens and educators monitor the degree of progress each school makes.
Such accountability has already led to higher achievement at many schools across all socioeconomic levels. But many challenges lie ahead. Under NCLB guidelines, schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" must report their status to their students' parents. Eventually, a school may be closed, the staff replaced, and the parents choose to send their children to successful schools. Principals, teachers, and other staff face closer scrutiny and consequences of their performance.
States vary in the quality and rigor of their school standards. To enable policymakers and others to know where their state stands, NCLB requires each state to participate in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments. NAEP not only measures student achievement in reading and mathematics but also includes writing, science, and additional subjects. Early comparisons show that many states have much lower standards than NAEP's national proficiency standards, allowing policymakers and others to call for higher standards to encourage better performance in their states.
The NCLB requirements have already had positive effects, but it has become apparent that several improvements can be made. The NCLB law and most states only require progress in reading, language arts, and mathematics. Although these subjects are perhaps the most important, both in their own right and as tools, they hardly constitute all the knowledge and skills students should acquire; progress in science, civics, and geography, for example, should be required.
Furthermore, NCLB requires progress in "proficiency," often defined as sufficient knowledge and skills to succeed at the next grade level. Some students, however, are already a grade level or more ahead, and some have little prospect of attaining proficiency in a given year. Poorly performing schools may concentrate their efforts on only those students that perform just under the proficiency requirement and neglect those far ahead and far behind the proficiency standard. For this reason, reporting progress at the levels of basic, proficient, and advanced should be required.
Finally, tests can be administered more than once a year. Tests are one of the cheapest and most effective means of raising achievement. They enable policymakers, school boards, educators, parents, and students to assess progress and to revise plans according to results. Most business firms compile quarterly results; some of the more successful companies compile daily reports. Computer programs now allow quick assessments, instant scoring, and detailed reporting. Policymakers should consider using computers to expedite the collection and usefulness of information on school progress.
A longer version of this piece can be found in Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child, edited by John E. Chubb.