Getting In Front of “No Child Left Behind”

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story

What’s the story behind the “No Child Left Behind” legislation?

When George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation into law on January 8, 2002, it was acclaimed by the administration as a “landmark Act to ensure that every child receives a high quality education.”

The law, however, has flaws, according to many educators at the City of Fairfax Schools.

“It would be impossible to disagree with the idea that all children deserve the best education available,” says City Schools Superintendent George Stepp. “I am the first to insist that all of our children work incredibly hard in school and strive to achieve the highest standards in every subject area. On the face of it, this legislation seems to be in favor of public education. But it isn’t well thought out, and the way NCLB grades schools is not fair or realistic.”

Stepp points to the fact that of the 185 Fairfax County schools, only 83 passed all of the targets for success last year-despite the fact that 184 schools met the law’s math achievement target and 181 met the English achievement target.

A primary reason for this discrepancy, says Nancy Sprague, chief academic officer of the Fairfax County Public Schools, is that students classified as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and disabled students were heretofore exempt by Virginia standards from having to take Standards of Learning tests (SOLs).

“Unfortunately, we found out after the tests were administered that those students would not be exempt from the NCLB requirements, and as a result those schools were penalized for not testing them,” she explains.

Daniel Domenech, Superintendent of Fairfax County Schools, says NCLB is a completely new way of keeping scores.

“We’re accustomed to looking at aggregate scores, such as Scholastic Aptitude Tests, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and SOLs,” he says. “With NCLB, we are examining our students and our schools based on 35 different scores-five measures of achievement for seven subgroups of students. If we fall short in just one of those 35 goals, the entire school system falls short. It’s tough to understand how a system like Fairfax, which is nationally acclaimed as being one of the best in the nation, could all of a sudden be considered failing by the NCLB terms.”

Virginia governor Mark Warner is also concerned about the inconsistency of NCLB.

“As governor, one of the biggest frustrations I have had is that basic measures of school performance vary widely across localities and states,” notes Warner. “Student achievement is often measured differently by states and the federal government. Just this fall, the federal government reported that some schools that have made great strides under SOLs are not making progress under a key measure under the NCLB Act called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). That’s confusing. As the chairman of the Education Commission of the States, I know that many other governors share this concern. “


Although NCLB has been viewed as being an instrument to torpedo public education—in favor of vouchers and using public funding for private and parochial schools—local educators know it is their job to make sure students meet the new federal requirements.

“I am for standards and accountability,” notes Sprague. “They ensure all of our children are learning and I don’t have any problem supporting that idea.”

What Sprague does have a problem with is the fact that under NCLB, all students in Virginia are judged by the same guidelines. As a result, even students classified as LEP and are recent immigrants and do not yet understand English well enough to read the questions on a standardized test are required to pass.

“That’s not likely,” says Sprague, noting that in Fairfax County there are nearly 20,974 students classified as LEP – 42 percent of all LEP students in the State of Virginia. “It doesn’t make sense to expect these students to excel on an exam as challenging as the SOLS.”

Another subgroup that Sprague is concerned won’t meet NCLB requirements are special education students. She points to her nephew, who is mentally handicapped.

“My nephew was born with a mental handicap and attended public school, eventually learning how to perform in a shelter workshop,” she says. “But by no means was he able to grasp all the material taught. Although we all would have loved for him to master the curriculum and pass a test like the SOLS, there is no way he could have—no matter what the federal government demanded.

“Educators know that every single student cannot achieve the same level of success in school, especially students who have just arrived in the U.S. and don’t speak English, and those with handicaps” Sprague insists. “Yet, under this law, as it is being implemented, we are required to make sure that every student—regardless of handicaps —achieves the same level of success. That doesn’t make too much sense.”


Yet, if a school doesn’t meet the 35 target areas in any given year, it doesn’t meet AYP and is classified as a failing school, Sprague explains. The school then has one year to make improvements.

Further , if it is a Title I school – which includes 53 percent of schools in America that receive direct federal government funding because they have large numbers of low-income students – and is categorized as failing for two years in a row, parents must be notified and given the option to enroll their children in another school. Additional years of failure bring additional sanctions.

“Obviously, the penalties for not making AYP are stiff,” say Sprague, “I’m not worried that most of our students can’t meet the requirements. But I am concerned that if the law doesn’t allow us to test LEP and disabled students appropriately, we are going to have many schools that fail to meet the new federal standards. My hope is that officials will modify the legislation so that it is fair to these subgroups of students. “


The four City School principals agree the NCLB law needs to be modified.

“The way the federal government has decided to call a school failing because it doesn’t meet one small segment of the regulations is misleading,” says Fairfax High’s principal Linda Thomson. “Parents may not understand the specifics of the legislation, and if their child’s school is designated a ‘failing school,’ they may pull them out. That could cause real problems because we’ll have to start busing kids to other schools, and paying for vouchers for private tutoring services. Will this help the kids who most need our attention? No. The money can be used in much better ways.”

What’s more, Thomson believes educating children well is not something that needs to be legislated. The reason a person goes into teaching is to ensure all children will receive the best education possible,” she says. “We won’t suddenly start teaching the sub-groups because it’s a law.”

Lanier’s principal Peter Noonan is also concerned about the impact of NCLB.

“I think this legislation is one of those cases where the intention and spirit of the law makes sense, but when rubber hits the road and you look at every student, there are clearly reasons why some students aren’t going to pass standardized tests,” he says. “The student may have just come here from Mexico and doesn’t speak English. He or she may have a learning disability.

“The reality of teaching kids is that learning is not an event, it’s a process. Teachers know this. They have watched it time and time again. If we expect kids to know something in a time-bound system, we are going to have problems. It’s just not how the human brain works.”

Daniels Run’s principal Kathy Mullenix says although she agrees it is important to demand every child achieve proficiency, she is troubled by the politics surrounding the NCLBlegislation.

“As an advocate of public education, I believe that student achievement for all children has
always been our goal,” Mullenix says. “Surely, educators understand the need for accountability. However, NCLB only affects public schools – not private schools, and it is inadequately funded. That puts public schools in an impossible situation.

“I think we are forgetting that every student learns at his or her own pace,” Mullenix continues. “And regardless of his or her score on the SOLS, each student has unique strengths. It is our job as educators to find out what those strengths are so that we can engage our students in their learning.”

Mullenix believes, however, that common sense will prevail.

“Just as we went through adjustments at the local school, division and state levels with the implementation of the SOLS, I anticipate that there will be adjustments with the implementation of NCLB,” Mullenix believes. “It will be an interesting process, one that I hope will ultimately benefit all of our children.”

Providence’s Joy Hanbury also thinks NCLB will change and improve over time. For the time being, she says she ‘is searching for a silver lining in the NCLB law.

“I think it’s good to say we’ll be checking to make sure students and schools are making annual progress,” she says. “But I hope that the powers that be will be reasonable about testing LEP and disabled students in ways that are appropriate for their skill levels.

“Yes, there are many inconsistencies in this law,” she concludes. “But I do believe the problems will eventually be worked out and we’ll end up with legislation that makes sense. My hope is that in the end, this law will not divide our country into good schools versus failing schools – but find a way to ensure all children are learning to the best of their ability. After all, that should be the only intention of a law that insists no child be left behind.”


It is with tremendous sadness that we inform you Dr. Nancy Sprague died suddenly on November 1, 2003, at her home in Falls Church. In addition to coordinating the school system’s compliance with the NCLB law Sprague, 59, was responsible for managing and ensuring the accountability of educational programs for Fairfax County Schools. “Nancy was an amazing, energetic, and very smart woman,” says Superintendent George Stepp. “She will be missed.”