If you are a parent of one of the 50 million public schoolchildren in the United States, the odds are your child has taken a standardized test within the past few weeks. The odds also suggest that you took such a test yourself once upon a time, though probably not as early or as often as your kids. You and your children have the federal No Child Left Behind Act to thank for the modern ubiquity of standardized testing.

No Child Left Behind is something of a forgotten stepchild now, having been expired without formal reauthorization longer than it was actually in effect. The Obama administration has moved on to its “Race to the Top” initiative; most states have applied for waivers from many of the law’s requirements. One might be tempted to conclude that NCLB was a failed experiment, a quixotic effort to attain noble yet patently unrealistic ideals. A new American Enterprise Institute report I’ve authored, along with Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky, argues the opposite: that there were, in fact, many positive lessons to take from No Child Left Behind.

Say what you will about the No Child Left Behind Act, but it was a piece of legislation with a clear vision behind it. The very notion that standardized tests could be used to assess schools – not just students – requires a breathtaking leap of faith. To believe in using test scores this way, one must subscribe to the viewpoint that every child possesses the capacity to learn; that a failure to achieve is not a personal failure but rather a systemic one.

The vision did not stop there. No Child Left Behind imposed many requirements on schools – the requirement to test students, and also a series of sanctions for schools that did not make tangible strides toward improving performance. It did not put new money on the table; there were no extra carrots to go along with the sticks. The bipartisan group of legislators who backed the law believed that more could be done with the resources already on the table.


How does this vision square with reality? Studies have already pointed to the positive trends in test performance that kicked in around the time the legislation was passed. It’s always difficult to tell, however, whether a break in trend can really be attributed to just one event, when there are so many others that could also bear responsibility.

Thomas Ahn and I sought insight on the effects of NCLB by taking advantage of the law’s structure. According to the legislation, schools were to be subjected to an escalating series of sanctions if students – and subgroups of students – failed to meet requirements for “Adequate Yearly Progress.” The enforcement of this provision was so strict that in many cases the performance of one child in a school of hundreds could spell the difference between compliance and sanction. Our report looks specifically at the differences between schools that barely made and missed the cutoff for AYP.

Generally speaking, we found that schools made some efforts to avoid being sanctioned, but the sanctions themselves had little impact. The sole exception pertains to schools that were forced to replace their senior leadership – a severe penalty imposed only on schools that had failed to meet expectations for six straight years. In schools where new leaders took over, performance tended to improve across the board.

The best evidence we’ve got, then, indicates that No Child Left Behind brought meaningful, positive change to some of the nation’s most troubled public schools. The law’s basic vision of schools that use resources wisely to realize the potential inherent in all children, regardless of their background, holds appeal on both sides of the aisle. The law, in sum, gives us something to celebrate.

It is not a perfect law, to be sure. By assessing schools on the basis of student proficiency rather than student improvement, the law failed to recognize schools that took highly disadvantaged pupils and made great strides with them. By introducing only punishments and no rewards for schools, the law couldn’t really make schools more enticing places to work. The good news is that the school accountability initiatives of the post-NCLB era are addressing these shortcomings, in part thanks to incentives put in place by the Race to the Top competition.

As red ink continues to recede from state budgets nationwide, states and districts will find new opportunities to make smart investments in public education. The administrators who recognize the lessons of No Child Left Behind – both good and bad – will make the smartest choices.

Vigdor is adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.