No Child Left Behind: A Success?

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Education Project Team, PPD225: Public Policy Management


No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a resounding policy success by bringing about a fundamental disruption to American education. Key factors that determined how effective NCLB was as a policy, include the education data collection processes reform, improvements in testing standards, and future revisions, which determine how successful the policy was at being a platform for which further educational reform could be implemented upon.  NCLB was a fundamental disruption to American education and left behind one of the most polarizing legacies in the 21st century American policymaking. The sweeping federal reforms and mandates wreaked havoc on the American education system, because of the heavy-handed, broad-stroke testing improvement standards, a lack of continued funding and political support, and the abject failure of schools to clearly meet NCLB standards. However, the policy was a clear success in educational reform by changing the way the US collects and uses student and school data, generating marked improvements in standard testing benchmarks, and further revisions and improvements over the years.


Data Collection and Education

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy dramatically overhauled how the American educational system collects and treats data from both school districts and individual students. It redefined how schools measure and track student performance. Under NCLB, states not only were required to report test results for the entire student population, but also had to taken into account “particular ‘subgroups’ of students, including English-learners and students in special education, racial minorities, and children from low-income families” (Klein). Although similar benchmark testing had taken place in the decades leading up to NCLB, Bush’s policy systemically scaled up the testing, and standardized data reporting across all state levels. Despite the inaccuracies of strictly using Math and English as measures of education quality, the policy was able to rapidly mobilize school districts towards student proficiency improvement. The key to this policy was that schools could not merely hide behind good average test scores. Since schools were required to break down student data into subgroups, such as race, disability, and socioeconomic status, "If one group of disadvantaged students underperformed, the entire school was considered underperforming” (Turner). Without these comprehensive datasets, Ben Casselman from FiveThirtyEight argues that underperforming subgroups “would disappear from the educational data landscape alongside many of their marginalized and traditionally underserved peers, and there would be little we could do to assess whether they were learning” (Casselman). Clearly, education needed federal preemption over states in order to radically disrupt education and create a framework upon which future refinements and improvements to how we measure student performance can be built off of.


Improvements in Standardized Testing

NCLB’s legacy may be the fact that 38% of schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in 2010 (Klein). However, more importantly, although the policy’s explicit achievement targets weren’t met, NCLB still led to a substantial positive implications for student academic performance.  Even by conventional testing measures, the NCLB led to a marked increase in student test scores, relative to prior decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the score of an average 9 year old inclined up only 4 points in reading during the three decades prior to the passage of NCLB (Erickson). However, between 1999 and 2012, after the passage of NCLB, the average reading test scores for 9 year olds increased by 9 points (Erickson). The data shows that when the NCLB was in effect, American children have made double the improvement in reading test scores in less than half of the time. Similarly, the average NAEP math test scores for 9 year olds increased from 230 to 232 between 1990 and 1999. By 2012, 9 year olds were scoring an average of 244 on the NAEP math test (Erickson). The data could not be any clearer. Whether or not standardized test scores measure educational quality is unclear. Whether or not the NCLB era lead to a dramatic increase in testing proficiency is clear. The NCLB not only changed the way educational data was reported and used, but also led to increases in performance within that data.


Closing the Racial Gap in Education

By forcing schools to comprehensively report their data by small subgroups and demographics, the NCLB policy brought about substantial progress in the closing of racial gaps in education. According to Third Way, “African American 9 year old students improved by a whopping 20 points...twice the improvement made by white students of the same age. Hispanic 9 year olds did almost as well, gaining 15 points (193 to 208) since NCLB was enacted” (Erickson). Similar gains in performance were realized in math test scores too, showcasing the effectiveness of the NCLB at combatting persistent decades of educational inequalities.

As the NCLB matured past its original 2009 expiration date, it was refined over time, as its most debilitating policy aspects were reworked or revoked. As more and more states were unable to meet the adequate yearly progress bars, the Obama administration waived “cornerstone requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in math and reading/language arts, and will give states the freedom to set their own student-achievement goals and design their own interventions for failing schools” (Klein). At face value, this may vindicate critics’ view that NCLB failed at exactly what it aimed to accomplish. The schools were failing at making the Average Yearly Progress (AYPs) standards set by the Bush administration. However, this paved the way to a reworking of the standards set to measure success of schools. “In exchange for that flexibility, the administration will require states to adopt standards for college and career readiness, focus improvement efforts on 15 percent of the most troubled schools, and create guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance” (Klein). This is a clear retooling of the metrics to better represent education success, as college and career readiness are much more accurate measures of academic success. The slow evolution of No Child Left Behind proves that it has achieved some relevance as pushing American education into the 21st century, while serving as a framework upon which future improvements can be made. Schools were held much more accountable for their students’ performance in the past 15 years, and the results clearly show improvement and progress.



The NCLB was a deeply flawed policy. It was a heavy-handed, narrow-sighted, “tough guy” approach to solving a complex, nuanced structural problem. However, it revolutionized the way the American educational system addressed and reported data, and delivered a much-needed quantification of education standards. It led to clear gains in testing performance, particularly among minority groups traditionally disadvantaged by the educational system. In the age of big data, NCLB has laid the groundwork for more effective policy making and quantifiable standards. Moving forward, NCLB has taken steps to create more accurate measures of academic success, and will thrust American education into the forefront of the 21st century.


1. Casselman, Ben. “No Child Left Behind Worked.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 22 Dec. 2015,

2. Erickson, Lanae, and Stephenie Johnson. “Did No Child Left Behind Work? – Third Way.” Third Way, 6 Feb. 2015,

3. Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week, 25 Oct. 2018,

4. Turner, Cory. “No Child Left Behind: What Worked, What Didn't.” NPR, NPR, 27 Oct. 2015,