The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) affects every public school in the United States. Its goal is to level the playing field for students who are disadvantaged, including:
- Students in poverty
- Students receiving special education services
- Those who speak and understand limited or no English
Added requirements hold schools more accountable for students’ progress.
NCLB has been controversial. Here’s an overview of how the law affects students with learning and attention issues.
NCLB: Holding Schools Accountable
NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Its goal is to provide equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.
NCLB is different from previous versions of ESEA. It holds schools accountable for how kids learn and achieve in several ways:
Annual testing: Schools must give students statewide math and reading tests every year in grades 3–8 and once in grades 10–12. Parents have the right to get individual test results for their children. Schools must publicly report school and “subgroup” results. For example, schools have to report how students in special education are performing on reading and math tests.
Academic progress: States must bring all students, including those in special education, up to the “proficient” level on tests. They must set targets for improvement, called adequate yearly progress (AYP). Schools essentially get a report card from the state on how they’re performing. The school must share that information with parents of their students. If a school doesn’t meet AYP, it can be labeled as “needing improvement.”
Penalties: Schools with many low-income students are called “Title I schools.” If a Title I school doesn’t meet AYP, NCLB allows the state to change the school’s leadership team or even close the school. If a school repeatedly fails to meet AYP, parents have the option to move their children to another school.
AYP goals and sanctions are supposed to push schools to improve services and instruction for struggling students, including children in special education. These penalties don’t apply to non–Title I schools.
Accommodations on Statewide Tests
Children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans often have accommodations to help them learn in school. NCLB says that reasonable accommodations must also be provided to them for statewide tests.
NCLB says that all students must take state tests. To have AYP, schools must test at least 95 percent of children in “subgroups.” This includes students in poverty, minorities and those receiving special education services.
Other NCLB Improvements
- NCLB gives more flexibility to states in how they spend federal funding, as long as schools are improving.
- NCLB says all teachers must be “highly qualified” in the subject they teach. Special education teachers must be certified and demonstrate knowledge in every subject they teach.
- NCLB says that schools must use science- and research-based instruction and teaching methods.
Pros and Cons of NCLB for Students With Learning and Attention Issues
On the positive side, NCLB led to inclusion. Before NCLB, many schools didn’t measure the progress of students with learning and attention issues. These students were often shut out of the general education curriculum and left out of state tests.
NCLB also set the expectation that struggling students learn alongside their peers. By making schools report their results by subgroup, NCLB shined a light on students receiving special education services. Schools were pushed to give struggling students more attention, support and help.
And they did. In the decade since NCLB was enacted, education results have improved. The graduation rate for students with specific learning disabilities increased from 57 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2011.
On the negative side, some say that NCLB focused too much on standardized testing. Some schools end up “teaching to the test”—focusing only on what students are tested on. This leaves little time for anything else they may need or want to learn.
Certain penalties, such as requiring school improvement plans, are reasonable, critics say. Others can be very harsh, such as firing school staff or closing a school that’s struggling. Critics have linked several cheating scandals to NCLB, citing the pressure on teachers and educators to perform.
Some argue that NCLB’s standards-based accountability is inconsistent with special education, which focuses on meeting a child’s individual needs.
Despite the controversy, most people support parts of NCLB—especially requirements for highly qualified teachers, research-based instruction and basic reporting on school results.
NCLB in Limbo?
Most federal laws are not meant to be permanent. They need to be reauthorized every few years. NCLB is currently several years overdue for reauthorization. Congress hasn’t agreed on how to change the law.
Because the law is overdue, the U.S. Department of Education has given “waivers” to more than 40 states. These waivers mean that parts of NCLB still apply.
But each of these states has different accountability rules. So students don’t have the same expectations in all states. Find out about your state on the Department of Education’s NCLB waiver page.
Read up on other laws important to parents of children who have learning and attention issues, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. If your child has an IEP, you may also want to explore standards-based IEPs as well as types of accommodations that are available for test taking.