It’s a boon or it’s a bust, depending on who’s talking. NCLB means “No Child Left Behind,” and it’s perhaps the most far-reaching federal reform in the last two decades. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings praises it for “making sure that schools are held accountable for the achievement of all students.” Public school teachers and administrators follow the laws, but aren’t always thrilled. One common jibe: “No Child Left Untested.” Arguments continue, with no end in sight.

One thing, however, seems sure: for the next several years, NCLB is here to stay, and if you’ve got a kid in school, it’s wise to know what’s going on. If you’re like many folks, though, the program’s acronyms just float around like alphabet soup. What’s up? Here's a quick “cheat sheet” you can use:

NCLB: No Child Left Behind Act. Both liberals and conservatives have known for a long time that there is an “achievement gap” between rich and poor kids and among the schools they attend, a gap that's hit children of color especially hard. NCLB takes a “get tough” approach. It requires states to:

  • Develop statewide curriculum standards for what all children should know and be able to do at the end of every grade.
  • Test children yearly from grade 2-8, and at least once in high school
  • Set goals and benchmarks to raise kids’ test scores (and, one hopes, their achievement in general).

Standards (Acronyms vary; see the website for your state’s department of education): Each state must create a comprehensive list of what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade.

AYP: Adequate Yearly Progress. If public schools want to receive federal funding (often a sizeable chunk of their budget), they must show that their schools have tested kids on state standards, using special statewide exams. Schools must then meet regular benchmarks that show they’re doing better each year. If they miss their goals, it’s very bad news: they must implement  “performance improvement” plans, and if these fail, the school can be taken over by state officials and “reorganized.”

STAR, TAKS, PSAE, etc: State Achievement Tests for measuring AYP. Every state is allowed to develop its own tests, and all the names vary. If you’re not sure about yours, ask your school; by law, parents should receive copies of all the results. Most newspapers also run yearly charts showing how different schools compare.

NAEP: National Assessment of Educational Progress. Sometimes called the “Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP is given every other year, although if some leaders have their way, it will soon appear more often.

So, parents, be prepared: starting in second grade, your child will take a battery of tests, usually over a two week period, just about every year, over many years to come. Look for lots of AYP on your NAEP reports. Keep encouraging curiosity, and with luck, you’ll also see a PHK (Pretty Happy Kid) who still values learning for its own sake, not just the scores.