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What is No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

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 updated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The law applied to all K–12 public schools in the United States.

Before NCLB, many schools didn’t focus on the progress of disadvantaged students. For example, kids who got services were often shut out of general education. They were also left out of state tests.

The goal of NCLB was to provide more education opportunities for students. It focused on four key groups:

  • Students in poverty

  • Students of color

  • Students receiving special education services

  • Those who speak and understand limited or no English

Unlike previous versions of ESEA, NCLB held schools accountable for how kids learn and achieve. It did this through annual testing, reporting, improvement targets, and penalties for schools. These changes made NCLB controversial, but they also forced schools to focus on disadvantaged kids.

NCLB is no longer the law. In 2015, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act , which tried to address some of the criticisms of the law.

Dive deeper

School accountability

School accountability rules were a big part of NCLB.

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 and caregivers had the right to get individual test results for their kids. All kids had to take the tests, including at least 95 percent of students in the disadvantaged groups.

Schools also 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 are 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 kids to another school. The penalties only applied to Title I schools.

Learn what’s changed from NCLB in current law .

Other NCLB provisions

Apart from accountability, NCLB made other changes to federal education law. Here are a few of the most important.

Under NCLB, all teachers had to be “highly qualified” in the subject they teach. This meant that special education teachers had to be certified and demonstrate knowledge in every subject they teach. This is no longer the case. Now, federal law only requires teachers to be state certified and licensed.

NCLB gave more flexibility to states in how they spent federal funding, so long as schools were improving. The law also required schools to use science- and research-based instruction and teaching methods. These reforms still influence today’s laws.

Lastly, kids with (IEPs) and often have accommodations to help them learn in school. NCLB required states to allow these kids to use accommodations on statewide tests. This rule still applies.

Read more about accommodations on standardized tests .

Pros and cons of NCLB for students

People have mixed feelings about NCLB. On the positive side, many believe NCLB led to a greater focus on struggling students. The law set the expectation that they learn alongside their peers. 

By making schools report results by subgroup, NCLB shined a light on students in poverty, students of color, those receiving special education services, and English language learners. NCLB pushed schools to give struggling students more attention, support, and help.

More students graduated under the law. The graduation rate for students with increased from 57 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2011.

On the other hand, some say that NCLB focused too much on standardized testing. Some schools ended up “teaching to the test” — focusing only on what students were tested on. This left little time for anything else kids may have needed or wanted to learn.

Certain penalties, like requiring school improvement plans, were reasonable, critics said. Others could be very harsh, like 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, many people still support some of NCLB’s reforms. This includes the reporting of school results, inclusion of kids, and research-based instruction.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom