There is no doubt that the objective of the No Child Left Behind Act is a noble one. The extensive law, which is largely concerned with new accountability measures for all public schools, was passed in 2001 with the sweeping goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Its intentions are good, and its ambition is admirable, to say the least. However, there are several fundamental flaws in the actual policy of the act that ultimately doom it to less-than-desirable results.
One of the primary problems with the law is its reliance on standardized test scores to quantify and judge a school's performance. If these scores do not reflect "adequate yearly progress" as it is glibly defined by the act, the school will face various penalties from the government. Just as it is impossible to gauge a student's true intellect, ability and potential by their scores on one uniform test, it is impossible to judge a school based on how its students fared on this test. One cannot cram every measure of excellence and achievement into the small fill-in bubbles on a Scantron sheet, rendering the logic behind this process of judgment too narrow. The problems and limitations of standardized testing are the matter of another debate altogether, but even its staunchest advocates would have trouble arguing that scores on these tests are sufficient means to judge the overall quality of education a particular school is offering. There are too many factors being ignored to make the law's standards truly accurate.
The narrow scope of the NCLB Act is also apparent in the way it is being implemented. According to the Harvard University "Teacher's Voice" survey conducted in California and Virginia, teachers are far more likely to say that the law is damaging instruction than improving it. One of the major allegations to this effect is that educators are too busy scrambling to meet the standards and achieve the elusive and poorly defined "adequate yearly progress" to provide a well-rounded education for their students. In short, they feel obligated to teach the test, rather than actually teach the subject. As a result, everything from useful disciplines (i.e. practical applications for math) to entire vital subjects (i.e. history, science and foreign languages) are being pushed aside in the race to meet the government's standards. I witnessed this first-hand when my high school created a course specifically for standardized test preparation, and required that all students take it during their junior year. During a valuable hour in which students could be exploring the intricacies and applications of a subject, we are instead taking practice tests and learning tricks to up our scores. This policy of oversimplification of knowledge favors strategy over the development of high-order thinking skills that will serve students well in life. Such nearsightedness will ultimately do more harm than good.
Policy flaws aside, there are strong indicators that the NCLB Act simply isn't achieving its original objective. Even as schools sacrifice broad education to perform well on standardized tests, they are not able to achieve the desired results; state governments are forced to lower their standards and rewrite the tests to make them easier. The quest for educational excellence has devolved into a vicious cycle of lowering scores and standards. Even the Bush administration itself admits that, since the law was passed seven years ago, several measures of academic success nationwide have actually gone downhill. Among these discrepancies is the fact that between 1999 and 2004, reading scores for 17-year-olds fell 3 points, and math scores fell 1 point. By the same token, in 2003, 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 29 developed nations in math literacy and problem-solving. The fact remains that one million students still drop out of high school before graduation, and the country is still behind most of its peer nations as far as educational achievement goes. The NCLB Act has proved itself to be not much more than the proverbial band-aid on a gaping wound.
From the over-emphasis of standardized testing to the narrowing curriculum to the redundant sanctions and inadequate funding, the negatives of the No Child Left Behind Act wholly eclipse its positives. There is a solid consensus that changes need to be made to improve student achievement, but the consensus is just as strong that this is not the way to accomplish it. Too many factors and provisions detract from the true goal of educational success. In order to restore this objective, major changes are necessary, including a shift in focus from standardized testing to richer curriculums, a second look at the impact of sanctions, and a significant increase in funding to achieve these goals. Without such changes, it amounts to an ambitious law that, in the end, does not live up to its own rigid standards.
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