The Pangloss Index: How States Game the No Child Left Behind Act

Source: Education Sector

Less than 40 percent of Birmingham students graduate from high school on time, according to Education Week. Test scores still lag the rest of the state; there are still large achievement gaps between black and white children; and the student body and budget continue to shrink every year. For the students who remain, most of whom are black and poor, “the promised land of racial justice” described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the Birmingham jail must seem very far away.

But you wouldn’t know it by asking the Alabama Department of Education. It says everything is fine, that Birmingham City Schools made “adequate yearly progress” last year under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). And only five of the district’s 65 schools are “in need of improvement.” The serious consequences and strong interventions that NCLB’s authors envisioned for chronically underperforming districts like Birmingham are nowhere to be found.

The reason is simple: While NCLB was designed to raise achievement standards every year until 2014, when 100 percent of students are required to be “proficient,” the Alabama Department of Education has lowered standards annually, to the point where even abjectly failing districts like Birmingham make the grade. And it’s not alone–every one of the accountability-avoidance gambits used in Alabama has been adopted in many other states. Indeed, the most noteworthy thing about Alabama’s elaborate plan to avoid NCLB accountability, and the impact of those actions on Birmingham, is how mundane they really are. Similar stories could be written about states and districts across the nation.

Collectively, these states and districts provide a case study in how determined states can undermine even tightly constructed laws like NCLB. And, as importantly, they provide a cautionary tale for members of Congress working to write the next version of the nation’s most important education law.

Full Report (PDF; 232 KB)

Leave a Reply