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Researchers Assert No Child Left Behind Act Is Fundamentally Flawed

In a paper published late last fall, researchers funded by the Teachers College Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University expressed extreme criticism of the proficiency standard of the No Child Left Behind Act. In crafting their findings, Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder provocatively titled their study, “Proficiency for All Is an Oxymoron.”

The No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, sets forth the standard that all students must be proficient by the year 2014. The act leaves it to each state to determine the definition of proficient, but the legislation insists that proficiency must be set at a challenging level.

Many states essentially use the same rates that define proficiency for the National Assessment of Educational Progress as the standards for their students. Many others use the below-basic range level for the NAEP as the cut score for proficiency, a lower cut score that obviously provides a state with fewer students failing in regards to the proficiency standard.

Using such a standard, the Columbia Teacher College researchers insist that proficiency is not attainable by all, or even nearly all, at any time. Not by 2014, not ever. The researchers contend that not even 100% of middle-class students could reach a truly rigorous standard, thereby rendering “proficiency for all” an oxymoron.

The writers note that closing the achievement gap is one thing, but that “not only is it logically impossible to have ‘proficiency for all’ at a challenging level,” not even “the highest-performing countries come close to meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s standard of proficiency for all.”

To formulate their assertions, the writers use test data to make some simple comparisons. For example, on the 1991 international math exam, the authors note that Taiwan scored highest.

Yet if Taiwanese students had used the scoring mechanism of the NAEP, and used the concepts of basic and proficient as our country defines for this assessment, a full 60 percent of the Taiwanese students had actually scored below the proficiency cutoff and another 22 percent below the basic category.

They further note that if the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMS data) that is often used to ridicule US student performance is examined, even 25 percent of the students in top-scoring country of Singapore were below the NAEP proficiency level for math and 49 percent below the proficiency level in science. Finally, on the 2001 international reading test, the top scoring country of Sweden still would have had fully two-thirds of its students below the proficiency level as defined by the NAEP scores.

The researchers also pointed out that the federal law currently exempts just one percent of all students from the testing process. Therefore, even American students with IQs as low as 65 must be proficient under the NCLB criteria. Yet, the writers state that “these cognitively challenged young people must do better in math than 60 percent of students in top-scoring Taiwan” to meet the NAEP proficiency criteria or “better than the 22 percent of Taiwanese students” if the below basic criteria were used.

In summarizing this wealth of data, the authors note a simple premise, that “no goal can be both challenging and achievable by all students across the achievement distribution.” Instead, two options exist – standards can either be minimal, thereby presenting little in the way of challenge to typical students or they can be rigorous and challenging, and ultimately unattainable by below average students.

The researchers conclude, “accountability should begin with realistic goals that recognize human variability.” In analyzing the legislation, the writers state unequivocally, that the “No Child Left Behind Act cannot be fixed” and the time has come for the US and Congress “to return to the drawing board.”

Educators across America can only hope that the educational leadership in Washington has been provided a copy of this study as the NCLB reauthorization discussions continue.


1 aaron wall { 07.18.07 at 9:55 pm }

It reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, a short story about how terrible the world would be if everyone was the same.

I think the idea was to set standards at a level that made them meaningless, so they could easily prove that public education is worthless (with no basis in or near reality), thus supporting their gold to gentrify the public education just like the way they screwed up the health care industry.

It is a reflection of the cancerous state of short term capitalism at its worst.

2 Miller’s “Kill All the School Boards” - Just a Provocative Title? — Open Education { 02.11.08 at 2:15 pm }

[…] noted in a previous post that experts see the law as immensely flawed. We quoted Columbia Teacher College researchers who […]

3 No Child Left Behind Act Deters High Standards — Open Education { 04.25.08 at 4:50 pm }

[…] to match that of college readiness would necessitate a rewrite of NCLB. As we noted in our article “No Child Act is Fundamentally Flawed”, researchers have indicated that proficiency for all is an oxymoron. No set of standards “can […]

4 reg { 09.18.08 at 9:22 pm }

I cannot find a set standard for education anywhere. If three high school years math must be taken -can that be addition, subtraction, then multiplcation? All show progress, but is this enough to be a high school graduate? Is there a requirement in any subject for high school graduation? If so why are so many graduating nearly illiterate?

5 Thomas { 09.20.08 at 9:06 am }


Your raise some great question points – states do have specific graduation requirements and local schools can make them more challenging if they want to create higher standards. The concept is quite complex in total. I will take the time to collect some materials then do a post on this topic as I am sure other people have similar questions.

Tom Hanson

6 Bill { 04.01.09 at 9:01 pm }

Yes, people should read this. Though there is variability in people, most of the time I can train a kid to pass most state’s exams in about 6 months, given a year you can easily get up to 90th percentile. It’s all about training, how and when you do it.

The only issue is scale, and student motivation. Given one child of almost any ability you can train them to pass the exams easily. Given 40 children of varying ability and motivation and backgrounds it becomes more challenging, especially if they don’t want to be there or if they don’t like school, or if they are daydreaming.

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