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IN NEED OF IMPROVEMENT: New Alliance Brief Finds Flaws in NCLB’s Design and Implementation for the Nation’s High School

“While well intentioned, the current NCLB simply does not address the dropout problem and ignores the fact that far too many students to finish high school without adequate preparation for college or the modern workforce,” said Bob Wise

Five years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed with bipartisan support in Congress because members from both political parties decided that the nation needed to close the achievement gaps that exist between students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. They also agreed that schools should be held accountable for the success of all students. However, In Need of Improvement: NCLB & High Schools, a new issue brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education, finds flaws in NCLB’s design and implementation for dealing with the unique challenges that exist in the nation’s high schools.

“While well intentioned, the current NCLB simply does not address the dropout problem and ignores the fact that far too many students to finish high school without adequate preparation for college or the modern workforce,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “It does not effectively reach high schools, and too many children are being left behind by ninth grade. With the law up for renewal this year, this is the time to build on the ideals of ‘no child left behind’ and to pass legislation that will lead the nation toward ‘every child a graduate.’ ”

Although many of NCLB’s provisions apply to all public schools, including high schools, the brief maintains that the law was designed primarily with earlier grades in mind. In fact, as the brief notes, President Bush’s original twenty-eight-page proposal for what became NCLB only mentioned the term “high school” twice. At best, the brief says, the law does not take into account either the nation’s evolving needs for an increasingly better-educated populace or the considerable differences between elementary schools and secondary schools. At worst, it says, NCLB’s provisions “often neglect” or “are even at odds with” the needs of America’s secondary school students.

For example, when it comes to setting goals and measuring Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in America’s high schools, NCLB relies on proficiency on state tests and on graduation rates, but according to the brief, there are several inherent flaws with both measurements.

NCLB allows each state to develop its own standards, to set its own definition of proficiency, and to create its own assessments. Given such flexibility, many states set their standards at low levels so that more students could reach the minimum standard rather than establishing worldclass standards that would prepare students for college and the workforce.

The brief also identifies problems with the graduation rate accountability provisions in NCLB, which it says are threefold. First, many state graduation rate calculations do not account for large numbers of students who left school without a regular diploma. As a result, the graduation rates that states report are unreliable. Second, while NCLB sets 100 percent proficiency on state tests in reading and math as its ultimate goal, it does not set an ultimate graduation rate goal. Therefore, states are not required to set—and schools are not required to meet—meaningful progress benchmarks (annual measurable objectives) toward that graduation rate goal. And finally, only aggregate (not student subgroup) graduation rates are used in the determination of AYP. Consequently, the low graduation rates of poor and minority students, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities are not factored into AYP determinations and are often hidden from the public eye.

According to the brief, even if the problems with the goals and measurements required by NCLB were addressed, low-performing high schools would still be left out and their students left behind. Why? Because under NCLB, only schools that actually receive Title I funds are subject to the law’s testing, reporting, and accountability provision. However, because states and districts are likely to direct additional resources toward meeting the needs of younger students in the hope of correcting problems early in students’ educational careers, the vast majority of resources provided by Title I of NCLB go to elementary school students—in contrast, only about 8 percent of Title I funds go to high school students. As a result, most secondary schools receive little support for improvement and are exempt from undertaking significant reforms.

Other problems with NCLB that the brief identifies are the absence of a federal effort to improve reading and comprehension in middle and high school. NCLB recognizes the importance of early literacy skills by including a systemic intervention in every state through the Reading First program, a $1 billion-a-year literacy program targeted to students in grades K–3. However, it makes no similar provision to improve reading and comprehension in middle and high school grades—even though 71 percent of all students enter high school reading below grade level.

Additionally, the limited tools NCLB does provide to improve low-performing schools—such as supplemental education services and intradistrict public school choice—reflect neither research nor best practice and are not effective for high school reform. For example, the public school choice provision is ineffective because 75 percent of America’s school districts have only one high school; thus, high school students often have few, if any, successful schools to which they can transfer.

In its conclusion, the brief says that calls to merely extend testing requirements to high school are “shortsighted,” as are those that suggest simply reserving portions of current funding streams for high schools. Instead, it maintains that there must be a comprehensive appraisal of how NCLB’s accountability and improvement system currently applies to high schools; then, a systemic solution that reflects all that is known about improving high schools from research and best practice must be crafted.

The complete brief is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.