The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has stirred reactions, both positive and negative, from a variety of stakeholders. The overall intent of the law is for all students—regardless of economic status, race, ethnicity, language spoken at home, or disability—to attain proficiency in reading, math, and science by 2014. Simply put, NCLB is saying that “language arts and math (and eventually science) are so important that the state must determine what students at specific grade levels must know and be able to do—and how well—in those areas” (Resnick, 2003).

NCLB at a glance

The focus of NCLB is standards, testing, accountability measures, and teacher quality. It specifically requires states to set standards and develop assessments and annual measurable benchmarks, and districts and schools to implement them. Under NCLB states are required to:

Develop rigorous state education standards that define what all students should know and be able to do at a specific age and grade level.

Identify schools in need of improvement.

Establish an accountability plan based on state standards (the U.S. Department of Education approves each state’s accountability measures).

State plans must also address the following areas:


Test students in reading and math every year in grades 3–8 and once in grades 10–12, beginning in the 2005–-2006 school year.

Test students in science at least once during elementary, middle, and high school beginning in the 2007–2008 school year.

Gather a sample of students in each state every other year to participate in the 4th and 8th grade NEAP in reading and math to help the U.S. Department of Education verify how well students are performing and progressing. 

Accountability measures

Develop "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) benchmarks to ensure that all students meet state standards for proficiency in reading, math, and science by 2014.

Publicly report achievement disaggregated by student race, ethnicity, family income, home language, and disability, using data collected from the 2002–2003 school year as the baseline. Schools and districts meet AYP only when each student group meets AYP.

Set clear timelines for improving student achievement with particular emphasis on closing achievement gaps between traditionally low-performing groups of students and their peers.

Assist schools not meeting their annual AYP targets. Title I schools not making AYP are deemed "in need of improvement."

The state and district must devote "additional attention and resources including funds for supplemental services" to help improve student achievement.

Develop corrective measures for Title I schools that over time consistently miss AYP. Some suggested sanctions include: Re-staffing the school, converting a public school to a charter school, shifting management of the school to a private company, or closing the school.

Teacher quality

Ensure that all students are taught by "highly qualified" teachers by the 2005–2006 school year. The law defines a highly qualified teacher as one who has a college degree, demonstrates content knowledge in the subject taught, and holds state certification or licensure. The law allows states to add to this definition and gives states flexibility to determine which tests they use for teacher certification along with the level of test proficiency that defines "highly qualified."

Provide professional development for those entering teaching via alternate routes (e.g., career changers). Along with professional development, these teachers must also receive intensive supervision and make progress sufficient to achieve full teacher certification by the 2005–2006 school year.

The NCLB controversy

NCLB is noteworthy for both its advocates and detractors. To its proponents, NCLB will propel the country’s efforts to provide equal educational opportunity for low-income students. But many critics question its implementation or charge that it fails to acknowledge complex factors influencing student learning. Some caution that a strong focus on test scores can distort teaching and learning in unproductive ways. Still others cite the lack of funding that implementation of the law requires. For those working to understand both the controversy and the law, it’s important to point out that the federal government has had its hand in education policy for more than forty years, so perhaps a little history would be helpful. 


NCLB is actually the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was originally signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid 1960s.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was the first comprehensive federal education law providing substantial monetary funds for K–12 education to schools serving children from low-income families. ESEA was developed as part of Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and was signed into law on April 9, 1965.

ESEA authorized funds for:

  • Educator's professional development.
  • Instructional materials.
  • Resources to support educational programs.
  • Parental involvement promotion.

The law outlined and provided funds for many education programs deemed essential for children living in poverty and was originally authorized through 1970. Since then, it has been reauthorized every five years. ESEA has survived eight presidencies and undergone numerous name changes. But the basic premise of the law still stands today; it "provides targeted resources to help ensure that disadvantaged students have access to a quality public education"(Section 201, Elementary and Secondary School Act, 1965).

Today's ESEA, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, or NCLB, passed with bipartisan support by Congress in 2001 and was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

What is new about NCLB?

NCLB redefines the federal role in K–12 education by requiring states and districts to take specific actions. While these actions demonstrate how well students are achieving, they must also demonstrate consistent progress over time in closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. Some ESEA requirements have remained relatively the same under NCLB, others have changed significantly, and still others have been added. Today's law is most often characterized by buzz-words such as "standards," "testing," "accountability," and "teacher quality." These are the tenets upon which NCLB rests.

Under ESEA's 1994 reauthorization, states were required to develop and adopt standards. This is still their responsibility; however, NCLB places a focus on "challenging academic standards" and tests based on those standards for all students in the areas of reading, math, and science. Benchmarks for ensuring the rigor of state standards and assessments are provided by states' participation in the National Assessment of Educational Progress1 (NAEP).


Testing has always been used as a tool for assessing student achievement and it still is. However, under NCLB students are required to be tested more often and with tests based on rigorous state standards.


While accountability mechanisms are not new, the focus under NCLB is closing achievement gaps, especially in reading, math, and science. Under the 1994 reauthorization, states were required to have content standards in reading and math, but NCLB called on states to strengthen those standards and to add science standards by the 2005–2006 school year.

NCLB calls for all students to be proficient in these subjects by 2014 and to assess how students are doing along the way to ensure 100 percent proficiency by then. To make these assessments, NCLB requires states to establish timelines with achievement targets. These targets are called adequate yearly progress (AYP). Standards are the benchmark for assessing AYP in all schools, but sanctions (or corrective measures) will be applied only to Title I schools2 and districts that fail to meet the standards they've set. NCLB also gives the parents of children in low performing schools corrective options such as extra tutoring paid for by the district or state or even relocating their child to a school with better performance.

Since its inception, ESEA has required states to gather data on student achievement. NCLB requires states, districts, and schools to be more specific in their reporting by using disaggregated data (i.e., race, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners). This data provides evidence on whether schools and districts are making AYP for each group of students as required by NCLB. It also serves as the basis for corrective measures for schools not making AYP.

Teacher Quality:

New to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is the requirement for "highly qualified teachers." States must define what a highly qualified teacher is and ensure that all of their teachers are highly qualified. The plan must establish annual, measurable objectives for each local school district and school to ensure that they meet the "highly qualified" requirement.

How can I learn more?

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a highly complex piece of legislation. Fortunately, lots of information is available to help parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, and others understand the law. Below we provide a few of these resources.


Council of Chief State School Officers: A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the United States, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices: Focuses on state innovations and best practices on issues that range from education and health to technology, welfare reform, and the environment.

National School Boards Association: A not-for-profit federation of state associations of school boards across the United States

Education Trust: An independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to make schools and colleges work for all of the young people they serve.

The Learning First Alliance: A partnership of 11 national education associations dedicated to improving student learning in America's public schools.


Center for Public Education. Key points about public education. Retrieved on March 9, 2006from

Resnick, M. (Fall, 2003). NCLB Action alert: Tools & tactics for making the law work. National School Boards Association: Alexandria, Va.

Schugurensky, D. History of education: Selected moments of the 20th century. Retrieved on March 9, 2006 from

1NAEP is a representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in specific subject areas. It does not provide scores for individual students or schools; rather it offers results on subject-matter achievement, instructional experiences, and school environment for populations of students and groups within those populations. [back to text]

2Title I schools receive money from the government. The money is allocated on the basis of student enrollment, census poverty data, and other data. Ninety-five percent of all public schools receive Title I funding.

This guide was prepared by Pamela Karwasinski, editorial associate of the Center for Public Education, and Katharine Shek, a legislative analyst for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: March 15, 2006
©2006 Center for Public Education