ERIC Identifier: ED480994
Publication Date: 2003/08/00
Author: Wenning, Richard; Herdman, Paul A.; Smith, Nelson; McMahon,
Neal; Washington, Kadesha
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Institute for
Urban and Minority Education
No Child Left Behind: Testing, Reporting, and Accountability.
In a major expansion of the federal role in education, the NoChild Left
Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requires annual testing, specifies a method for
judging school effectiveness, sets a timeline forprogress, and establishes
specific consequences in the case of failure. As the use of standardized
testing to measure school accountability has expanded, so has the list
of arguments for excusing the low achievement of whole categories of students.
While special education law provides for testing with “accommodations,”
in practice it has pushed educators to focus more on procedural compliance.
The achievement of language-minority students has often been overlooked
or mismeasured as school districts lacked the skill or will to administer
This digest reviews how testing and reporting requirements will operate
with respect to different groups of students and examines factors that
could delay or dilute the guarantee of educational accountability in the
academic achievement of all children.
Different States, Different Tests
Although the Act mandates annual testing for all states by 2005-2006,
it does not provide federal standards for testing practices. Left to their
own discretion, states have created a broad array of approaches. Some states
test reading and math every year; others test those subjects at three or
four-year intervals, and others test a variety of subjects in a variety
One critical difference in testing practices is whether states use norm-referenced
or criterion-referenced tests. Norm-referenced tests assess a student’s
broad knowledge, measuring performance against a relevant comparison group.
Criterion-referenced tests measure specific skills in relation to pre-established
standards of academic performance. Advocates of standards-based reform
prefer criterion-referenced tests because they can be directly aligned
to a given state’s standards. However, because they are generally individually
designed for each state, they are far more expensive to create and produce
results that are more difficult to compare.
Evolving Testing Patterns. While the Act mandates annual testing
by 2005-2006, it does not explicitly require states to administer the same
test from year to year. Thus, states like Louisiana and Maryland, which
test students in grades three through eight with a mix of norm- and criterion-referenced
tests, may technically be in compliance, yet produce results that lack
consistency over time.
States have some flexibility as to what subjects are tested and when.
Prior to 2005-2006, they must measure proficiency of mathematics and reading
or language arts, and do this at least once during grades three through
five, six through nine, and 10 through 12. By 2005-2006, states must
measure student achievement annually against state academic and achievement
standards in grades three through eight in mathematics and reading or language
arts. Beginning in 2007-2008, states must also include science assessments
at least once during each of these three grade spans. So, by 2007, students
will be tested annually from grades 3 to 8 in readingand math, tested twice
in the elementary grades in science, and then in reading, math, and science
at least once in grades 10-12.
Definitions of “proficiency” can vary from state to state. Beginning
in the 2002-2003 school year, every state must participate in biennial
assessments of fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics under the
National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Further, NAEP data will
be used to compare results on state tests with performance on NAEP assessments
(U.S. Department of Education, 2003).
Testing All Student Groups
NCLB extends federally mandated testing to a wider population by reaching
all student groups, not just those served by Title I. Testing requirements
cover all K-12 public school students, including those attending charter
schools. Further, state assessments must be disaggregated within each state,
local education agency (LEA), and school by student demographic subgroups,
• economically disadvantaged students;
• students with disabilities;
• students with limited English proficiency (LEP);
• major racial and ethnic groups; and
This provision attempts to rectify distortions and variations masked
by the widespread reliance on schoolwide averages. In the past, when states
were given the discretion to make exemption decisions, the result was widespread
exclusion of students with disabilities from large-scale state and national
Reasons for such exemptions ranged from a desire to protect students
with disabilities from the stresses of testing, to an aversion to the difficulties
of specialized test administration, to the desire to raise a school's average
scores (Heubert and Hauser,1998).
Districts fearing misdiagnoses because of language barriers may allow
such students to remain in English as a SecondLanguage (ESL) programs for
the maximum three years allowed under most state laws before they are assessed.
Of the nation’s 2.9 million students enrolled in programs for English Language
learners, an estimated 184,000 have disabilities, according to the U.S.
Department of Education (DOE) (Zehr, 2001). NCLB’s provisions clarifying
the time frame for participation in ESL tracks, coupled with the expectation
for 95 percent participation within student subgroups, should mitigate
NCLB unmistakably includes students with disabilities and LEP students
under its testing and accountability provisions and reinforces prior federal
requirements for reasonable accommodations needed to achieve that end.
Whose Scores Count
While all students must participate in state testing programs, not all
students’ scores will count equally in the alignment of incentives for
improving school performance.
Adequate Yearly Progress. The key question is whether scores
are included in measuring “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or AYP. NCLB provides
a new federal definition of AYP that is more specific than the 1994 reauthorization,
while still preserving some state latitude:
• Each state, using data from the 2001-2002 school year, must establish
a baseline for measuring the percentage of students meeting or exceeding
the state’s proficiency level of academic achievement. The state must use
the higher of either the proficiency level of the state’s lowest-achieving
group or the proficiency level of the students at the 20th percentile in
• States must develop a 12-year plan for all students, within each
of the “disaggregated” subgroups, to attain proficiency.
• States must develop annual measurable objectives that are consistent
across schools and student subgroups and show proficiency increases in
equal increments over 12 years, with the first increase required to occur
in not more than two years,and the remaining increases to occur within
each subsequent three-year period.
• States may establish a uniform procedure for averaging data over
multiple years and across grades in a school.
A New Way of Reporting Scores
Reporting results. Beginning in the 2002-2003 school year, states
must provide parents and the public with annual report cards, which include
information on student achievement disaggregated by subgroups, as described
above. Taken together, the AYP and reporting provisions provide a new level
of transparency about school performance, enabling parents and educators
to make accountability more than a slogan. Yet a closer look reveals two
potentially significant concerns.
First, grade-level-specific performance does not need to be monitored;
thus, schools can provide schoolwide averages across grades rather than
reports for all student subgroups in each grade. Yet without such reporting,
schools can focus their energies on grades with higher achieving students
-- while ignoring grades with lower achieving students -- and still increase
their school average.
A second and perhaps more serious concern is NCLB’s use of the schoolwide
average of student proficiency as the yard stick of progress. Although
results will be disaggregated by student groups, reliance on this measure
may discourage use of “value-added” analytical methods, which measure the
impact of a school on the progress of individual students over time. States
have latitude in this area and there is reason for hope that such analytical
methods will be used.
Nevertheless, because the new federal definition of AYP encourages the
analysis of average proficiency levels across student groups, the progress
of individual students could be lost. A problem for state and national
policymakers, this weakness in NCLB may undermine its utility most seriously
at the school and district level.When there is no annual measurement of
individual student performance over time, educators lack important data
needed to evaluate their own work - to understand the “value added” by
their efforts. Comparisons of school wide averages can be misleading and
uninformative when the composition of classes changes from one year to
Arguably, the measurement of progress required by NCLB confuses the
school building for the students. Without a focus on student progress over
time, superintendents and state boards of education will be measuring the
percentage of students at the proficient level and calculating the change
from year to year, but the numbers will refer to the apples who were in
the building last year versus the oranges there now.
Implementation and Enforcement. The state and federal record
on this issue is not encouraging. A DOE study of Title I, released seven
years after the passage of the Improving America'sSchools Act (IASA), found
that, of the 34 states reviewed, 13 did not have adequate testing and accountability
provisions for limited English proficient students; 10 had similar difficulties
with disabled students; and 16 had difficulty in disaggregating the data
as required (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Moreover, while few states
have met the requirements of IASA even now, no state education agencies
have been financially penalized for not complying with the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act (Robelen, 2001).
Congress and the Administration should be lauded for enacting legislation
that is focused on standards of achievement. However, if no child is to
be left behind, states will struggle to implement NCLB, causing tension
over the federal enforcement role. Additionally, the DOE should move to
expand and strengthen the quality of data collected for accountability
purposes. By mandating annual testing of entire school populations, NCLB
creates an opportunity, but not an obligation, to measure the progress
made by cohorts of students over time. It is Congress’s obligation to back
up this opportunity with enough funds so that states may develop longitudinal
Heubert, J.P. & Hauser, R.M., Eds. (1998). High stakes: Testing
fortracking, promotion and graduation. Washington DC: National Research
Council. (ED 467 572)
High standards for all students: A report from the National Assessment
of Title I on progress and challenges since the 1994 reauthorization. (2001).
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education,Office of the Under Secretary,
Planning and Evaluation Service. (ED 457 280)
No Child Left Behind: A parents guide. (2003). Washington, DC: U.S.
Department of Education. Available: http://www.nclb.gov/next/faqs/testing.html
Robelen, E.W. (2001, November 28). States sluggish on execution of 1994
ESEA. Education Week, pp. 1, 26, 27. Available: http://www.edweek.com/ew/newstory.cfm?slug=13com-ply.h21.
Zehr, M.A. (2001, November 7). Bilingual students with disabilities
get special help. Education Week, pp. 1, 22, 23. Available: h t t p : /
/ w w w. e d w e e k . o r g / e w / e w s t o r y. c f m ?slug=10clark.h21&keywords=bilingual.
This article is adapted from No Child Left Behind: Who Is Included in
New Federal Accountability Requirements? (ED 469 962), which was prepared
for“Will No Child Be Left Behind? The Challenges of Making This Law Work,”
a conference sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.