No Child Left Behind Act

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The first major legislative initiative of the Bush administration in 2001 reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This new bi-partisan law, dubbed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), fundamentally altered and expanded the federal government’s role in education. The centerpiece of the law was the requirement that states, as a condition of accepting federal funds, establish academic standards to guide their curricula and adopt a testing regime that was aligned with those standards. States had to test all students in math and reading in grades 3-8 every year (as well as once in high school) beginning with the 2005-2006 school year, and by 2007-08 states also had to test students in science. States were free to develop and use their own standards and tests, but every school, school district, and state had to make student test results publicly available and disaggregated for certain groups of students including: major racial and ethnic groups, major income groups, students with a disability, students with limited English proficiency, and migrant students.

NCLB explicitly required that states use this information to identify schools that failed to meet proficiency targets and to track achievement gaps. States were required to establish a timeline (with regular benchmarks) for making “adequate yearly progress” toward eliminating these gaps and moving all students to state proficiency levels within 12 years (by 2014). The law’s accountability provisions required states to take a number of escalating actions with Title I schools that did not reach state performance objectives. These actions included allowing students to transfer to another public school in the district, offering free tutoring, or (after several years of underperformance) replacing staff, adopting a new curriculum, or “reconstituting” the school with a new governance structure (e.g. reopening as a charter school). In exchange for meeting these new federal demands, NCLB provided a significant increase (approximately 50 percent in its first year) in federal education spending. The new federal focus on accountability and the extension of federal policy to cover every student and every school in the country marked a major shift in the governance of elementary and secondary education in the United States. The development of such a sizable and reform-oriented federal role in education is remarkable when placed in the context of the nation’s history of local control and states’ rights in education. States resented this new level of federal involvement and struggled to comply with all of the federal mandates and implement the reforms effectively. As written, however, the legislation was a complex mix of federal mandates and state discretion—although states were required to put standards and tests in place and create a system for dealing with failing schools, for example, they were also entrusted with setting the rigor of these.

The aggressive implementation approach of the Bush administration’s Department of Education succeeded in getting states to comply with federal mandates and intervene to a greater extent than ever before in districts with low-performing schools. States built new data gathering and dissemination systems that resulted in an unprecedented degree of transparency in public education. By holding states clearly accountable for the performance of their public schools, NCLB also prompted state departments of education to expand their capacity to monitor local districts, provide technical assistance, and intervene where necessary. State education agencies, however, struggled mightily to comply with the law’s programmatic mandates and meet its timetables for moving students to academic proficiency and a large number of schools across the country were identified as “in need of improvement” and forced to apply “corrective measures.” As intended, NCLB also forced states and districts to focus more attention and resources on chronically low-performing students and schools, though to widely varying effect.

Overall, however, a variety of concerns were raised about the design and implementation of the test-based accountability system at the heart of NCLB and the ways in which it fell short of its goals and produced unintended negative consequences in American classrooms. Paul Manna has highlighted how NCLB created perverse incentives that led schools and states to adopt counterproductive compliance behaviors such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, focusing on “bubble kids” rather than student growth, and lowering standards, which undermined NCLB’s ultimate goals. NCLB also renewed doubts about whether states had the political will to address the problem of underperforming schools. States used their discretion under the law to manipulate (or “game”) their accountability systems by lowering their standards, making their tests easier, and/or decreasing their proficiency cut scores.

And as David Cohen and Susan Moffit (2010) have observed, the federal government’s ambitious goals in NCLB were not matched by sufficient attention to how teachers and administrators could realize these goals; there was a large disconnect between policy and practice. NCLB ultimately forced states to change many of their educational practices, but political resistance and capacity gaps at the state level meant that these changes were often more superficial than substantive. NCLB did not generate as much meaningful school improvement or progress in closing student-achievement gaps as was originally hoped, making it abundantly clear that most state departments of education were ill-equipped to monitor compliance with their own policies or engage in effective district- and school-level interventions. Though the impact and lessons of NCLB have been hotly debated, many observers highlight the need for states to expand their capacity to support school reform and for the federal government to be less prescriptive about school turnaround measures. Despite the implementation and political challenges engendered by NCLB, one of its enduring legacies is the institutionalization of assessment and accountability in state education systems and an invigoration of the state role in school reform. The Bush administration’s aggressive push on school reform (which was embraced and extended by the Obama administration), however, eventually led to a political backlash against test-based accountability and against federal involvement in education more generally, which resulted in an ESEA reauthorization (the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2016) that rolls back the federal role in K-12 schooling in important ways.


Cohen, David K. and Susan L. Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Dee, Thomas and Brian A. Jacob, “The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Fall (2010): 149-207; Manna, P. 2006. School’s In: Federalism and the National Education Agenda. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press; Manna, P. 2011. Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities. (Washington, DC: CQ Press; McGuinn, P. 2006. No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas; McGuinn, P. 2016. “From No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act: Federalism and the Education Legacy of the Obama Administration.” Publius: The Journal of Federalism (Volume 46, Issue 3, July 2016, Pages 392–415).

Patrick McGuinn, Drew University

Last Updated: February 2018

SEE ALSO: Education; Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965


For the full text of NCLB, see Department of Education, No Child Left Behind Act; For a detailed analysis of the provisions of the Act, see Learning First Alliance, Major Changes to ESEA in the No Child Left Behind Act;


For detailed analyses of the NCLB from the viewpoint of state implementers, see Education Commission of the States, State Requirements Under NCLB, January 2003;, and National Governors Association , NGA Summary of the Timeline Requirements of NCLB; 
Thirty-five states did not have such testing at the time of passage.
 Frederick Hess and Chester Finn, ed. No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half- Decade of NCLB. AEI Press, 2007.
 Jeb Bush and Joel Klein, “The Case for Common Educational Standards,” Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2011,
 Kerstin Le Floch, Andrea Boyle, and Susan Bowles Therriault, “Help Wanted: State Capacity for School Improvement,” (Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research, September 2008), See also: N. Kober and D. Rentner; “More to Do, But Less Capacity to Do It: States' Progress in Implementing the Recovery Act Education Reforms,” (Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy, February 2011). 
 David K. Cohen and Susan L. Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman, “The Predictable Failure of Federal Sanctions—Driven Accountability of School Improvement—And Why We May Retain It Anyway,” Educational Researcher 38, no.5 (2009): pp.353–364.
 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., ed., No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 2007).
 Michael A. Gottfried, Brian M. Stecher, Matthew Hoover, Amanda Brown Cross, “Federal and State Roles and Capacity for Improving Schools.”  Rand Corporation, 2011: viii.