On Jan. 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law after it passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. Its messaging called for bridging the gap between struggling and high-performing students.
Schools would get held accountable by their states for the academic progress of all students and ensure that by 2014, most if not all students could read and write to their grade level. But as each state had to enforce the new law, criticism arose, the politicians who were supporters turned against it, and much of the bill was later gutted in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Although there was a positive emphasis on individual students and a priority to adjust to their needs, No Child Left Behind’s legacy is now one of heavy workloads for testing, an obsession with momentary data instead of overall performance, pressure placed on everyone at school, and arbitrary penalties.
Dr. Milena Garganigo is the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning for the School District of Clayton. Garganigo works on the writing of curriculum, the choice of curriculum materials, assessments, and professional development for faculty and staff. She has worked in Clayton for the past 26 years. “I think [Congress] saw the same flaws that we saw,” said Garganigo.
Garganigo pointed out that the law had some positive aspects. “It was a different focus on students at an individual level,” said Garganigo.
“Being able to look at data pieces with a student and being able to say, this is the next plan for how we’re going to address this child’s educational needs.”
Curricula were pushed to be more flexible, which is an impact of No Child Left Behind that continues to survive.
“Looking at your needs, and my needs, even if we’re in the same class, our needs might be a little bit different,” said Garganigo.
But it began to be unpopular since the law required students’ academic abilities to be measured by rigorous testing. “It’s one data point on one day. If you’re having a bad day, and you take that test, I don’t want to make big decisions based on that,” said Garganigo. “When we give the MAP test, we don’t get the results back from that test for a while.”
It’s one data point on one day. If you’re having a bad day, and you take that test, I don’t want to make big decisions based on that.
— Dr. Milena Garganigo
Standardized tests ended up occupying more decision making done in schools.
“The original writers of the law thought, ‘we’ll just put all this emphasis on these assessments,’ but I actually think that’s detrimental to kids and their learning,” said Garganigo.
Using standardized tests taken within the same span of a few days is an inaccurate survey of how well students are retaining their learning.
“What are the other pieces that we have to say that this is a good, accurate read of a child’s achievement? Or if it’s not a good read, what are the other pieces that we have that might be better?”
Another problem that arose from No Child Left Behind is the damage it inflicted on public education financially. Schools, if they released lower-than-expected testing data of its students, would be threatened with sanctions by state governments until they get defunded.
For more severe cases of schools falling behind, state governments can replace most or all of their staff, take over their management, or convert them into charter schools. By dropping schools from funding as punishment, states effectively left them to drown in continuously declining academic performance.
The School District of Clayton was able to avoid No Child Left Behind’s ramifications because of the resources made available.
“I ask our teachers not to make decisions on just one data point,” said Garganigo. “We’ve been trying to figure out, with all of these laws, what are ways to get a much more holistic picture of the abilities of students.”
The Missouri School Improvement Program is what allows Missouri to enforce federal laws like Every Student Succeeds to make recommendations to certain school districts. The latest iteration of the program, MSIP 6, shifts away from a focus on testing and more on the effectiveness of lessons as other pieces of data to consider.
The story of the No Child Left Behind Act is a problem that persists today in one form or another. It’s one where test scores seize education more than any other measurement when it comes to gauging academic success, leading to major oversight by ignoring other means that may be more helpful.