Public School Accountability: The Death of Student Learning

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boywithbooksSatisfying the demand for highly skilled workers is the key to maintaining competitiveness and prosperity in the global economy.  For this reason, many educational policymakers strive to craft policies that assist educators in developing a stronger workforce.  This was the intended aim of the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act put forth by the Bush administration. However well intended the NCLB Act was, the consequences of several key requirements have turned out to be counterproductive.

In terms of direct impacts, the NCLB Act has eclipsed the following state and local education policies in the areas of (1) Standards and Assessment; (2) Accountability and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP); (3) Corrective Action; (4) Staff Qualifications; and (5) Parental Involvement (Federal Register Part IV, Department of Education 2013).  More specifically, the NCLB Act strengthened Title I accountability by requiring States to implement statewide accountability systems covering all public schools and students. These systems are required to base their accountability systems on challenging State standards in reading and mathematics, grades 3-5 annual testing for all students, and establish annual statewide progress objectives so that all groups of students demonstrate proficiency within 12 years. According to the United States Department of Education (2005), the assessment results and State progress objectives must be broken out by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency, and if school districts and schools fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward statewide proficiency goals over time they will be subject to improvement, corrective action, and restructuring measures.  Schools that meet or exceed the AYP objectives or close achievement gaps will be eligible for State Academic Achievement Awards.

In the analysis of the NCLB direct impacts to state and local education policies, two key unintended consequences stand most prominent in the overall impedance to student learning.  The first unintended consequence is that of accountability.  Diane Ravitch (2011) makes the case in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, that there are many questions can be made about the true origins and implications of NCLB and accountability.  Ravitch (2011) goes on to claim that many educators falsely believed that the NCLB was an outgrowth the standards movement when in fact, “the new reforms had everything to do with structural changes and accountability, and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning.” (Ravitch, 2011, pg.39).  The structural changes within NCLB, mentioned by Ravitch (2011), have frequently been stated as being politically motivated with little to do with a real substantive impact on student learning.  Today the effect of the accountability movement has not brought about the much-desired growth in student learning (Ravitch, 2011).  The second unintended consequence of NCLB Act was the imposed requirements for schools that consistently fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets.  According to Floch, Taylor, and Thomsen (2006), this requirement of NCLB could lead to schools dismantling years of comprehensive school reform efforts by implementing a new curricular program, restructuring the school day, or dismissing staff, all of which are possible courses of action under the legislation.   Floch, Taylor, and Thomsen (2006) go on to explain that,

Frequently, NCLB accountability is perceived to focus only on AYP targets, potentially diverting attention from comprehensive improvement strategies. However, AYP and comprehensive improvement strategies should be linked, not in conflict: If schools do not make AYP,  administrators should seek sound, research-based strategies to attain higher academic performance. However, this connection is often obscured by a “drill-and-kill” reaction to test pressure, a focus on more mechanistic components of AYP (e.g., attendance rate), or developing strategies to “game” the system. Such conditions could indeed persuade teachers that they can no longer take time to focus on all the components that are traditionally assumed to be a part of CSR, such as participation in shared governance structures, professional communication with peers, and parent involvement.

With these types of unintended consequences of the NCLB Act permeating the educational landscape, it is hard to see how the educational legislation, in its current state, can help schools improve student learning and assist educators in developing a stronger workforce.


Federal Register Part IV, Department of Education. (2013). Title I—Improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged; final rule. 34 CFR Part 200.

Floch, K. C. L., Taylor, J. E., & Thomsen, K. (2006). Implications of NCLB Accountability for Comprehensive School Reform. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 11(3-4), 353-366. doi: 10.1207/s10824669espr110304_8

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: how testing and choice are undermining education (Apple iBooks ed.). New York, NY: Perseus Books.

U.S. Department of Education. (2005). Introduction: No child left behind. Retrieved from

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