Fixing the NCLB Accountability System
Ohanian Comment: Not to sound overly cynical, but isn't it typical that when a significant percentage students are in crisis, researchers call for more research? They should be calling for revolution. And a living wage.
by Robert L. Linn
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is
praiseworthy for the special attention it gives
to improved learning for children who have
been ignored or left behind in the past. The
emphasis on closing the achievement gap is
certainly commendable, as is the
encouragement given to states to adopt
ambitious subject matter standards and
enhance teacher quality. NCLB’s focus on
students with low achievement seems to have
had some short-term positive effects. The
percentage of schools meeting Adequate Yearly
Progress (AYP) targets increased in 2003-04
from the year before in most states, and the
recently released National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend
scores have shown some narrowing of
Given the positives, we might conclude
that NCLB is working, and hence no changes
are needed at this point. Unfortunately, the
accountability system has some fundamental
problems that threaten to undermine its central
goals over the next few years. Dissatisfaction
with some of the accountability provisions led
the U.S. Department of Education to make
some changes in NCLB accountability
requirements last year, with more on the way
this year.1 The changes, however, are what Jim
Popham calls “edge-softening” and do not deal
with NCLB’s fundamental problems,2 which
include expectations, targets, state proficiency
levels, reporting, and the safe harbor provision. The remainder of this policy brief describes each problem and offers proposals for
FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS AND PROPOSALS FOR IMPROVEMENT
The most serious problem is that the NCLB expectations for student achievement have been set unrealistically high, requiring that by the year 2014, 100% of students must reach the proficient level or above in math and reading. Based on current improvement levels and without major changes in the definition of adequate yearly progress (AYP), almost all schools will fail to meet NCLB requirements within the next few years. . . .
Since this paper has a lot of figures, it is best read at the url below. I will print the conclusion.
NCLB has the potential to make substantial contributions to the achievement of students who have lagged behind and been ignored in the past. Some features of the NCLB accountability system, however, need to be modified if the praiseworthy goals of NCLB are going to be achieved. I offer three suggestions.
1. The most important modification is to set realistic performance targets for adequate yearly progress, rewarding effort with success. The need for more realistic goals applies to both the safe harbor provision of the law and to the annual performance targets.
2. AYP should be determined by a consideration of growth in achievement and not just status in comparison to a fixed target.
3. The current definitions of proficient achievement established by states lack any semblance of a common meaning. Alternatives to defining proficiency should be considered that would provide more meaningful and comparable achievement targets.
1 See Olson, L. (2005). Requests win more leeway under NCLB. Education Week, 24(42), p. 1.
2 Popham, W. J. (2004). Shaping up the ‘No Child’ Act: Is edge-softening enough? Education Week, 23(38), p. 40.
3 Linn, R. L. (2003). Accountability: Responsibility and reasonable expectations. Educational Researcher, 32(7), 3-13.
4 See Hoff, D. J. (2005). States to get new options on NCLB Law. Education Week, 24(31), pp. 1, 38. Olson, L. (2005). States hoping to grow into AYP
success. Education Week, 24(37), pp. 15, 20.
5 Colorado uses the partially proficient level for state reporting as the proficient level for purposes of NCLB.
6 Popham, W. J. (2004). Ruminations regarding NCLB’s most malignant provisions: Adequate yearly progress. Retrieved August 8, 2005, from
7 Based on Novak, J. R., & Fuller, B. (2003). Penalizing diverse schools? (PACE Policy Brief 03-4). Berkeley: University of California, Policy Analysis for
Center for Research on Evaluation,
Standards, and Student Testing
Eva L. Baker, Co-Director
Robert L. Linn, Co-Director
Joan L. Herman, Co-Director
Daniel Koretz, Associate Director
Ronald Dietel, CRESST Line Editor
Katharine Fry, Editorial Assistant
The work reported herein was supported under the
Educational Research and Development Centers
Program, PR/Award Number R305B960002, as
administered by the Institute of Education Sciences,
U.S. Department of Education. The findings and
opinions expressed in this publication do not reflect
the positions or policies of the National Center for
Education Research, the Institute of Education
Sciences, or the U.S. Department of Education.
UCLA Center for the Study of Evaluation
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Robert L. Linn
CRESST Policy Brief 8
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES