A Guide to the No Child Left Behind Act

— Center for Public Education
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

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.

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