No Child Left Behind = More High School Dropouts

February 21, 2008 |

An article in School Library Journal’s “Extra Helping” newsletter reports bad news about the No Child Left Behind program.

“Here’s a new and significant research finding that won’t surprise many of No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) school-based critics: high-stakes, test-based accountability—exactly what the law promotes—has a direct, negative impact on graduation rates,” writes Joan Oleck.

Though the article does not directly discuss science education, those of us concerned about science and other subjects that place the development of critical thinking skills above the acquisition of factual information are indeed not surprised that teaching to the test is counter-productive educationally.

The SLJ article extends the critique of NCLB in Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by Linda Perlstein, published last fall by Henry Holt.

My Science Shelf Review of Tested states, in part:

Politics aside, this book is a tale of a team of ordinary people doing extraordinary work to succeed against the odds, caring adults striving to make the world better for children.

Chapter by chapter, the tension grows. The devil they face is in the details that all schools confront: discipline problems, learning disabilities, emotional turmoil at home, or simply parents struggling to stay afloat. Poor schools have additional problems, including student and faculty turnover. How can this team, including several newcomers in critical positions, do even better than last year’s performance?

Like any good drama, this one reveals deeper truths. Tested offers plenty of grist for critics who argue that No Child Left Behind forces good teachers to focus on test-taking skills rather than true learning. Creativity and critical thinking suffer in the push for higher test scores. Science and social studies lessons are neglected. Lessons on how to write formulaic “brief constructed responses” (correct spelling and grammar optional) replace exercises in crafting sentences and paragraphs.

But its central message is more important. This behind-the-scenes view of a real school at work reveals that Tyler Heights would be a success story whether its students are tested or not.

10 Responses to No Child Left Behind = More High School Dropouts

  1. CSTEM Inc. July 26, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    For more solutions, read Dr. Reagan Flowers’, educational pioneer, read

  2. CSTEM Inc. July 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    The provisions of NCLB did not promote innovation or high expectations nor did it encourage the development of 21st century skills in public schools. NCLB has further created a national obsession with standardized tests that do not measure depth, application, nor provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned. Education acts, such as NCLB, that lack adequate funding to all states and school districts and shared responsibility of parents, communities, educators, and policymakers, do not provide all children an opportunity for a great public school education. The pitfall of NCLB is that it was neither specifically designed to close the achievement gap nor increase student achievement. Rather, it simply set an achievement benchmark and passed it on as a federal mandate for all public schools to achieve.

    NCLB Overlooked Significant Factors to Create Effective Educational Programs:

    To ensure that educational programs are effective in increasing student achievement, educational leaders must be held accountable to create programs guided by a concise understanding of the school community and socio-cultural dynamics; particularly, within schools serving greater numbers of low income and minority populations. Program administrators and developers of educational offerings should create procedures that ensure programs are implemented as they are designed, with built-in accommodations to support and supplement broken and absent systems. Leaders in education should understand that what works in one community will not necessarily work in another and there is no one size fits all solution to creating effective educational programs. The reality is that successful education programs accommodate systemic needs of the school community, for example:

  3. Penelope June 5, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    This whole idea is ridiculous. They punish schools that can’t reach their ridiculous standards and then punish them again when they don’t improve. This doesn’t seem good for our school systems and it certainly doesn’t seem to be encouraging our students.

  4. Cosmo November 3, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    Anonymous we have carefully thought out that option of letting a child learn at their own pace and it works!

  5. Cosmo November 3, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    I have to agree with you CA resident. There has been a tremendous burden on the schools to proform to the expectations of what the government deems as important not understanding the real meaning behind what the root problems are in the educational field.

  6. Fred Bortz May 11, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    A leading historian of education and former cheerleader for No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch, has written a powerful recantation of her previous position called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.

    Click the link above for my review.

    Fred Bortz

  7. Anonymous October 24, 2008 at 12:46 am #

    Yes, quality counts. But, we have paradigm paralysis! Why must we assume that the current approach for educating our children is the right one? So, “grading” is a topic that is inherent to this assumption.

    What if we allowed for our children to learn at their own pace? Why would grades matter in this context?

    Take a look at the interesting end-to-end treatment of the education problem, “Education in America — What’s to Be Done?” developed by Trigon-International. It’s the kind of revolutionary thinking that is in this report that really needs to be given a hard look.

  8. Fred Bortz February 24, 2008 at 10:57 am #

    Anonymous, thanks for your comments.

    I think you are misunderstand what the originally cited article meant by high stakes. I recommend reading the article itself rather than my brief excerpts from it, but here’s another key paragraph from it.

    In short, NCLB’s accountability requirements led to the pressures that fed the dropout rate, says Linda McSpadden McNeil, a professor of education at Rice and the study’s lead author. “What we found is, the higher the stakes—whether principals get a bonus or lose their jobs, or whether your school could lose funding or even be closed if the scores don’t go up—then the greater the likelihood that the adults in the system start to look at the kids according to whether they are assets to the schools’ rankings or whether they are liabilities.”

    The tests were not being used as a graduation requirement, but the high stakes schools faced for poor performance inevitably affected the way the principals and teachers did their jobs. There was a benefit to getting rid of poor performers, which means there was (probably not consciously or deliberately) little effort to encourage potential dropouts to stay.

    The book I reviewed showed how high-stakes testing affected a middle school. I’m sure the designers of NCLB explicitly warned against teaching to the test, but in practice, that has been the near universal response of educators whose jobs or raises have depended on measured performance on it. In the excerpt of my review that I quoted in the original posting, I state, “This behind-the-scenes view of a real school at work reveals that Tyler Heights would be a success story whether its students are tested or not.”

    The school is considered a poster child for NCLB, but the truth is more complex–or perhaps it is simpler. This school was led by Tina McKnight, a gifted principal who knew that her job was to facilitate learning, no matter the external requirements imposed by the board of education. She had to use a curriculum that directly addressed how to perform better on the NCLB tests, but as I note later in the review:

    Regardless of curriculum or school policies, the key to learning is found in the day-to-day interaction between caring teachers and their students. Tina McKnight’s success comes from recognizing that her job is to provide an environment that brings out the best in such everyday moments.She provides leadership, encouragement, and resources. Then she gets out of the way. As Congress reconsiders No Child Left Behind, they would do well to follow her example. Provide legislation that facilitates learning, not artificial priorities that impede it. Then get out of the way.

    NCLB is a great example of what engineers like to call “the Law of Unintended Consequences.” The data show an increase in high school dropouts, and it is not unreasonable, given further research, to recognize that the increase is an unintended consequence of this particular approach to making educators more accountable for the results of their work.

    Fred Bortz — Science and technology books for young readers ( and Science book reviews (

  9. Anonymous February 23, 2008 at 9:59 pm #

    If one carefully reads the information provided by the Department Education it would become quickly apparent that making the tests used for NCLB into graduation requirements is not recommended. In fact they recommend, as do many other educational researchers, that you never do such a thing. The tests are meant to be a diagnostic to rate the efficacy of the schools, not of the individual students.

    Assessment of student performance is still best left up to the teachers who have a much broader view of the students work behaviors and performance on much more than a single test. If you base a students retention or advancement on a single test it completely undermines the role of the educator and at the same time skews the test results by introducing elements of stress and fear.

    The tests, however, do provide a wealth of information as to how a school is doing on average. You can pinpoint exact areas needing improvement down to single skills and concepts that students in general perform worse on. By using this targeted data you can draw very specific conclusions about student performance and student needs and modify their education accordingly.

    Those who rail against NCLB have very little understanding of the potential this law has opened up in the lower performing areas of our country. It is finally forcing them to be accountable for the billions spent on education and at the same time forcing them to look at the causes for failure. It is the greatest boon to education in the 21st Century – and yes, I am a teacher.

  10. Anonymous February 22, 2008 at 3:21 pm #

    This is just another excuse for bad teachers and lax administrations to pass blame. When I grew up in CA we took the CAT and no on had to “teach to the test”. The test covered the materials we were supposed to be well versed in. If a few students did poorly more emphasis was placed on them. If many students did poorly it was a teacher problem. Things have really changed since then.
    When I talked in class to other students I was whacked across the knuckles. No more talking. When a student jumped up and called the teacher a MF’er (they did that even then in Berkeley) a cop stationed in the school would drag the kid out. Expelled or sent to alternative. Never to be seen again disrupting learning. And most of all, we were required to learn!!!! We even had to take shop classes and PE. No excuses. Boys could take home making and girls auto shop.

    No child left behind is a burden on the schools because they have to spend time on real subjects as opposed to feel good multiculturalism and diversity.

    Ex-Berkeley CA resident.

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