Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The NPR Ed Mailbag: Tests, Proficiency, George Bush And No Child Left Behind

LA Johnson/NPR

Our story on the impact of No Child Left Behind got lots of people talking.

As we reported, 2014 is the year when the amibitious goal of the 12-year-old law was to be met: One hundred percent of the nation's students would reach a "proficient level of academic achievement."

That didn't happen. Schools had to prove that their students were performing at grade level based on standardized test scores. In many cases, they could game the system by changing the test or the passing score.

Scores did improve, but not enough to come close to the 100 percent mark the law laid out.

No Child Left Behind — a signature domestic achievement of President George W. Bush — has been controversial from the beginning, and the hundreds of comments and social media posts reflected that wide range of opinions and ideas.

You raised some good points, too, and we followed up on some of them with the experts in our story.

One Size Doesn't Fit All

Many of you wrote that NCLB took a "one size fits all" approach to education.

"We don't expect kids to all be the same height, why expect them to achieve exactly the same," commenter "StephenandChristi Brietzke" wrote on NPR's Facebook page. "Some are gifted in English but not math, some PE but not art. We are all different and that's a wonderful thing."

James Wilde agreed: "Not all children learn the same way, at the same rate, at the same age. Shocker"

Closely related was the idea that standardized tests weren't the best way to asses children's abilities. "Teaching to the test does not promote learning/problem solving skills and creativity," wrote Susan Krsnich.

The standards for proficiency that states and school set were often arbitrary, responders said.

Commenter and self-identified teacher "teacherladytn" wrote, "The problems with 'proficiency' is the arbitrary number assigned to it. In my state of Tennessee, proficiency is a score of 85% or higher, 92% to be considered advanced. That equates to a B grade.

"I as a professional educator (yes, we do exist) feel that there is no real difference in terms of actual reading proficiency in my students who score 81-84 and those who make the magic number of 85."

Our expert Andrew Ho at Harvard's Graduate School of Education had some thoughts about this. "One of the quotes you often hear is that standards are arbitrary but not capricious," he says. "A set of subject-matter experts came together and generated this description of what it means to be proficient in reading, math, science and used all the technical information available. And through a replicable process decided on this ultimate standard. But it has to be a judgment — there is no technical solution or answer for what is the true proficiency standard."

In our original post, we mentioned that some schools responded to No Child Left Behind requirements by giving more and more tests to prepare students to take the state tests, and by focusing resources on students who were just below passing, to the detriment of both higher and lower achievers.

Many readers felt schools were prioritizing test-taking skills over deep learning. "Students are being prepared for tests that determine if they are proficient in test-taking," wrote Dave Frownfelder.

Does It Add Up?

Lots of you also wondered whether the goal of 100 percent proficiency made statistical sense.

"It's statistically impossible for all children to be above average," commenter Catherine MacDonald Christian wrote on NPR's Facebook page. "We don't live in Lake [Wobegon]," she said, a reference to the famous line in A Prairie Home Companion.

MaryAnne Pomeroy explained further: "There is a bell curve, and by definition 50 percent of the kids will be above and 50 percent of the kids will be below."

The experts we talked to said this is a common misconception. "In principle there's nothing prohibiting 100 percent of kids from being proficient," said Morgan Polikoff of USC. Proficient doesn't refer to where kids fall on a bell curve, whether above or below average. Instead, it sets a minimum standard of ability for a given grade level, more like a driving test.

However, Polikoff allowed that 100 percent proficiency is probably impossible in reality. "Every school has some low-performing students with severe cognitive disabilities who aren't going to make the cut."

Commenter "whataboutit2" agreed: "It's sad that we determine if children are successes or ... failures by a test. The expectations are that a child with a 130 IQ and a child with a 70 IQ should score on grade level!"

Ask The Teachers

So where do we go from here? Many felt that the NCLB — and subsequent reforms — lack input from educators. "This is what happens when people with no background in education are put in charge of making rules about education," wrote Sarah Lenore.

Policymakers don't understand complex challenges that teachers face in the classroom, added Emily S. Purdy Apmadoc.

"They have no concept of the range of needs, abilities, family environments, etc. that affect a student's life at any point in time," she wrote. "Yes, there are things that each child needs to know, but there is no way to make any sort of blanket approach that will work for every single student."

The best way to move forward, wrote commenter Steve Theis, is to get more teachers involved in the policymaking process. "Teachers will do the best they can, but until teachers actually start to have a voice in how education (you know, a teacher's profession?) is administered and funded it will never come close. ... Step aside, legislators, and let teachers help make decisions!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.