On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law. The sweeping update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 created new standards and goals for the nation’s public schools and implemented tough corrective measures for schools that failed to meet them. Today, it is largely regarded as a failed experiment.
NCLB passed both houses of Congress easily and with bipartisan support. Future Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, and longtime Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy were among its sponsors. The bill aimed to address what both parties agreed was an unacceptable drop in standards in America’s public schools. The new law mandated that states create measures of Adequate Yearly Progress based on standardized tests. Schools that did not meet AYP requirements were subject to increasingly harsher actions by the state, such as giving students the options to transfer after 2 years of missing AYP goals or even the wholesale restructuring of a school after 5 years.
While some schools did see improvements in test scores, the results were uneven and often negative. Teachers complained that standardized testing cut into class time and forced them to “teach to the test” rather than to their students’ needs. Many felt that requiring all schools statewide to achieve the same goals unfairly punished both schools that were already performing well and schools in underserved areas. Others argued in principle against threatening underperforming schools with corrective measures, while some accused Republicans of using the law to turn private schools over to charter school companies or private businesses.
In 2015, NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which retained parts of the old law but attempted to make it less punitive to underperforming schools. Today, NCLB is often cited as an overly harsh approach to education reform, while many Americans simply remember it as the reason they had to take so many standardized tests.