No Child Left Behind Turns Successful Schools Into “Failing” Schools

Here’s a puzzle. In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Kristina Rizga writes “Everything You’ve Heard About Failing Schools Is Wrong.”

Here’s what she’s writing about:

According to the scores, Mission High School in San Francisco, California, is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the country, and it has consistently failed to meet the ever-rising benchmarks set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

But, as Rizga explains:

One of the most diverse high schools in the country, Mission has 925 students holding 47 different passports. The majority are Latino, African American, and Asian American, and 72 percent are poor. Yet even as the school was being placed on the list of lowest-performing schools, 84 percent of the graduating class went on to college, higher than the district average; this year, 88 percent were accepted. (Nationally, 32 percent of Latino and 38 percent of African American students go to college.) That same year, Mission improved Latinos’ test scores more than any other school in the district. And while suspensions are skyrocketing across the nation, they had gone down by 42 percent at Mission. Guthertz (the principal) had seen dropout rates fall from 32 percent to 8 percent.

How is this a failing school? That’s the puzzle that Rizga attempts to elucidate.

And mostly it comes down to the fact that standardized tests are all that really counts in the determination as to whether a school is failing or passing. Schools are graded on standardized tests. The law mandates universal “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014—a deadline that weighs heavily on educators around the nation, since schools that don’t meet it face stiff penalties.

Rizga spent 18 months embedded at Mission High School in San Francisco: if you wonder why you haven’t read many accounts of how these questions are playing out in real life, there’s a reason: It’s easier for a journalist to embed with the Army or the Marines than to go behind the scenes at a public school. It took months for her to find one that would let her in.

She follows one student, Maria, while reflecting on what makes a good school. Mission High earns an A+.

How do we know when schools are failing, and why is it so hard to turn them around?

That’s her central question. Is the close to $4.4 billion spent on testing since 2002—with scores now used for everything from deciding teacher pay to allocating education budgets—getting results? Is all that data helping us figure out what really works, or seducing us into focusing only on what the tests can measure?

Every spring across the nation, students in 3rd to 11th grade sit down to take standardized tests required by the federal NCLB. Each state comes up with its own tests, based on its own list of curriculum standards students have to master in each grade. In most states, standardized tests consist primarily of multiple-choice questions.

As Rizga points out:

No Child Left Behind was animated by this faith in metrics. It mandated that states use test scores to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing, with the latter required to improve or accept punitive measures.

However, ten years later, a growing number of education advocates say they didn’t anticipate how high-stakes testing would change instruction for the worse. Among the converts is education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in George H.W. Bush’s administration and was an ardent champion of NCLB. “Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools,” she wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else… This was not my vision of good education.”


Even the godfather of standardized testing, the cognitive psychologist Robert Glaser, warned in 1987 about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on test scores. He called them “fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement” and warned that standardized tests would find it “extremely difficult to assess” the key skills people should gain from a good education: “resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationships, a dedication to advancing the public good.”

And how fair is this? After just one year in the country, Maria had to take the same test as native speakers, even though studies show that immigrant teens take at least four years to become proficient in English—and that’s with constant focus.

Yet despite a mountain of evidence that standardized tests reveal a very narrow slice of information, in most states they still determine a school’s fate.

An ample body of research shows that careful mentoring and peer review helps teachers figure out ways for struggling students to improve. But it doesn’t show up in standardized tests—and for many, it’s pushed aside by the constant battle to ratchet up scores.

The Obama administration has softened some of NCLB’s impact, granting waivers to more than half of the states from the law’s most punitive section, which calls for all students to score “proficient” in math and English by 2014. But even in the waiver states, standardized tests remain the dominant measure for schools.

We need to change this. My daily interaction with my students, the hours I put in to working with them individually: these are the moments of which I am proudest. And yet, when decisions around how to rate and grade teaching and learning are made, teachers are rarely involved in the  discussions.

Instead administrators, politicians, and increasingly big business types are the ones to make the decisions.

Although determined to be “failing” under the No Child Left Behind Act, Mission High School is clearly succeeding in many important ways.

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10 Years Of No Child Left Behind: Flawed Beyond Fixing?

Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

Most Schools “Failing” By No Child Left Behind Standards

Photo Credit: iStock


Misty Lemons
Past Member 6 years ago

The school system is broken and needs a lot of work to make it better. At my child's school they've just put a policy in place to double punish students. If a child goes to the time out room and other punishments 3 or more times in a semester they will be excluded from any social activities at the school. They were already punished, why punish them more and ostracize them? Parents were not even asked for their input on the policy. It was snuck under the radar and put on a recent newsletter more of as an afterthought rather than a proper announcement. I for one am not standing for this and have put together a petition that I plan on bringing to the school board at their next meeting. I need as many signatures I can get. Please, support the children. It is appreciated.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

I spent all 4 years of high school bored out of my mind. I was not challenged. I made straight A's without having to try (that was in all Honors and AP classes, mind you) the kids who didn't care or didn't want to read the material or do the work slowed us down. Laziness and sports oriented students kept the class from being able to move forward. it's a broken system. my son will be home schooled, where he can learn at HIS pace and take time to truly LEARN the material

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

To Ms. A.:


I think you named many (major!) valid points, reasons for which the situation in education is as we all know it. I would add one more: learning nowadays guaranties nothing, except, perhaps, joblessness.

University professors do not help, since they are vulnerable themselves, in terms of gaining and securing a position, and later funding for their activities. Unfortunately, university professors are the only people in the world of school professionally strong enough to stand up to politicians, CEOs, etc. The only ones who cannot be ignored if they say things are really bad. I am sorry to have to say it, but modest teachers (in spite of their hard work and dedication), do not have the scientific reputation to stand up to those who decide. And for this situation it's not teachers' fault, for their own education is crippled by the same people with decision power, whoever they may be.

In short: it's essentially hopeless, bar one (or more) miracle(s).

Georgia Armstrong
Georgia a6 years ago

To Ad D: if the teachers who taught me and my classmates, particulary Mrs. Ruth Bing and Mrs. Georgia Purvis, were alive today to see how the students are being taught, how the discipline has been allowed to deteriorate, all of the pretty useless testing and the quality of the material taught, they would have a fit. What we need today are teachers like these ladies, who when we left their classes, KNEW the subject (and still do today). Of course we would need to revert to what actually worked and untie the instructors' hands. Cut down on some of the silly paperwork they have to complete, allow them to appropriately discipline the students, teach the work and not to the test, in other words let them do the jobs they were hired to do and that is teach the students to survive in the real world facing them. And the thing about it, as tough as these ladies were, we all adored them as we knew they cared about our futures.

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

To Carlos B.:


I did not say I had wasted my time watching that video, but precisely the contrary: I said that, in spite of being disappointed (to some extent) by the performance of both sides, I did not regard it as a waste of time on my part.

Regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the school systems, I do not share your optimism regarding the outlook US has. In the US, knowledge is diluted (in schools for the many) to incredible ratios, and can't see how one recovers from that, later in life.

Whether the damage incurred by the Chinese through their rigid education, I'm not sure. I am certainly more worried for the Americans than for the Chinese, in this regard.

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

To Carlos B.: Sir,

Thank you for your link on China and its education. I have tried little on my own so far, to find out about it, so getting that (from you) was really helpful.

I was disappointed in some ways, without regarding the time spent on watching it as wasted. Disappointed that the Chinese did not employ a fully professional translator. That Professor West sounded (to me) - both in the timber o his voice and in expressed ideas - more as a priest and less as a scientist. But perhaps it°s cultural: perhaps Professor West°s family wasn°t one of intellectuals. Equally, the Chinese dean doesn°t look intellectual to me - perhaps for similar reasons. In his case, it°s much harder (to me) to estimate him, as I do not speak Chinese. Still, some gestures and clumsy laughter from him do not suggest he could be an intellectual (and I°m no expert either, of course).

One student there said *American students aren°t as intelligent*. I believe he meant: *American students aren°t as knowledgeable (which makes them appear less intelligent)*. The question is: what excuse does US have, to keep its masses in ignorance ? The Chinese have their very good reasons for oppressing (some of the) people in China: prevent a breakup of the country, and (or) a major political system change. Is that the reason for the US as well ?

Disappointing Professor West°s equating Chinese political oppression with outright war (from a gentle giant, spreadin

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

Continuing - it didn' fit, although I thought it was shorter than the one which ppreceded it.

In "socialism", graduates of corresponding faculties (math for teaching math, physics for teaching physics etc.) had to take an exam after two years, to be confirmed for good as teachers (bar for misbehavior, along the way). The exam covered pedagogy, methodology of teaching (whatever they were teachers of), and ... their own stuff, which they were supposed to teach. The catch is, it wasn't at high school level (exclusively), it was at the level of their first two years in university! To remind you of it: such courses are often introductory courses at graduate level in the US, in average universities!

Those people who rush to claim the US/Western education situation is "socialism" almost certainly have not seen "socialist" schools.

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

Promising link, Mr. G., thank you!

"Socialism" had postulated that "crisis" since its (!) emergence, about the beginning of 20th century. So, ... for something in crisis, it's doing amazingly well! I'm saying, a "crisis" is a serious difficulty, which may or may not be survivable. But in our case, I'm not at all sure to what extent it's a matter of "couldn't", and to what extent one of "wouldn't".

I returned to add a little more about "socialism", which wouldn't have fit into my previous posting.

In "socialism", pre-university standards were controlled by the ministry of education, but I am certain that universities have had a strong input into that. Textbooks were written by university professors of corresponding disciplines, and the (high!) quality and level were visible.

Starting with high school, students were getting into schools through (three-hour long) exams only, although they could apply to any school in the country. As soon as there were more candidates than places, there would be an entrance exam. This certainly was the case with really good schools. In particular, university admission was based on (generally three) 3-hour long exams. These exams are publicly available, everybody should see them.

By contrasts, you should look at the exams given nowadays (if, at all): their being a shame is grossly understating it.

In "socialism", graduates of corresponding faculties (math for teaching math, physics for teaching physics etc.) had

Michael G.
Michael T6 years ago

Those intellectual enough to be willing to listen to intelligent discussion on the subject should listen to the following interviews David Harvey and Richard Wolff July 26, 2012 on the Charlie Rose program.

Ad Du
Ad Du6 years ago

To Mr. Carlos B. and annybody else:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I'll leave the "socialism" claim aside, although I have more experience with it than anybody who has never seen it. Let's concentrate on what we have here: democracy and capitalism.

Anybody who wants to see a math high school curriculum from "socialism", please write me on Care2, with a way to reply to you. I'll attach a 24 page (lightly stuffed) with said math curriculum.

It will show you that it goes into university space of democracy. It will show you that, by the end of high school, students here (in public schools for the masses) are 2-3 years behind same age (18 yo, that is) students who live in democracy, in terms of subject matter tackled. In terms of depth in coverage, there is no comparison!

If I could show you the (undergraduate) university curriculum in "socialism", you'd find out that it goes into about half the way of the DOCTORAL program at an average US university. This is hard to believe for those who know nobody from "socialism". Have a look at this year's ranking at IMO (a competition introduced by a "socialist" country, because they knew their chances of winning it regularly were great, by virtue of its serious curriculum):

How many (great!) democracies do you see in the first 10 countries there ? How many in the first 15 ?

Gossip from "socialist" countries has it that ALL SIX members of the US team this year