No Child Left Behind (NCLB): What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

  • No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the main law for K–12 general education in the United States from 2002–2015.

  • The law held schools accountable for how kids learned and achieved.

  • The law was controversial in part because it penalized schools that didn’t show improvement.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was in effect from 2002–2015. It was a version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.

When NCLB was the law, it affected every public school in the United States. Its goal was to level the playing field for students who are disadvantaged, including:

  • Students in poverty

  • Minorities

  • Students receiving special education services

  • Those who speak and understand limited or no English

NCLB was controversial. Here’s an overview of how the law affected students with learning and thinking differences.

NCLB: Holding Schools Accountable

The goal of NCLB was to provide equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.

NCLB was different from previous versions of ESEA. It held schools accountable for how kids learn and achieve in several ways:

Annual testing: Schools had to give students statewide math and reading tests every year in grades 3–8 and once in grades 10–12. Parents had the right to get individual test results for their children. Schools had to publicly report school and “subgroup” results. For example, schools had to report how students in special education were performing on reading and math tests.

Academic progress: States had to bring all students, including those in special education, up to the “proficient” level on tests. They had to set targets for improvement, called adequate yearly progress (AYP). Schools essentially got a report card from the state on how they were performing. The school had to share that information with parents of their students. If a school didn’t meet AYP, it could be labeled as “needing improvement.”

Penalties: Schools with many low-income students were called “Title I schools.” If a Title I school didn’t meet AYP, NCLB allowed the state to change the school’s leadership team or even close the school. If a school repeatedly failed to meet AYP, parents had the option to move their children to another school.

AYP goals and sanctions were supposed to push schools to improve services and instruction for struggling students, including children in special education. These penalties didn’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 said that reasonable accommodations also had to be provided to them for statewide tests.

NCLB said that all students must take state tests. To have AYP, schools had to 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 gave more flexibility to states in how they spent federal funding, as long as schools were improving.

  • NCLB said all teachers must be “highly qualified” in the subject they teach. Special education teachers had to be certified and demonstrate knowledge in every subject they teach.

  • NCLB said that schools must use science- and research-based instruction and teaching methods.

Pros and Cons of NCLB for Students With Learning and Thinking Differences

On the positive side, NCLB led to inclusion. Before NCLB, many schools didn’t measure the progress of students with learning and thinking differences. 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. 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 were tested on. This left little time for anything else the kids may have needed or wanted to learn.

Certain penalties, such as requiring school improvement plans, were reasonable, critics said. Others could be very harsh, such as firing school staff or closing a school that’s struggling. Critics linked several cheating scandals to NCLB, citing the pressure on teachers and educators to perform.

Some argued that NCLB’s standards-based accountability was inconsistent with special education, which focuses on meeting a child’s individual needs.

Despite the controversy, most people supported parts of NCLB—especially requirements for highly qualified teachers, research-based instruction and basic reporting on school results.

NCLB: Replaced With ESSA in 2015

Most federal laws are not meant to be permanent. They need to be reauthorized every few years. NCLB spent many years in limbo, waiting for reauthorization. When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law, it kept some parts of NCLB and repealed others.

Read up on other laws important to parents of children who have learning and thinking differences, 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Your child may be entitled to accommodations on state tests.

  • NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015.

  • Understanding current education laws can help you advocate for your child.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM 

serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.

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