Accountability & Standardized Testing in Education in the 21st Century

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  • 0:01 Assessment
  • 1:34 No Child Left Behind
  • 3:37 Criticism
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What's the deal with assessments and No Child Left Behind? In this lesson, we'll examine statewide standardized assessments, teacher accountability, and the No Child Left Behind Act, including what critics say about them.


Imagine that you are in school, and you take a really hard test. You've studied a long time, and you think you did okay, but you're not really sure. There were some tricky questions, and you might have done really well or not well at all.

Now imagine that your teacher never says anything about the test again. You don't know your grade, you have no idea what the right answers to the questions are, and you don't have any idea whether you understood the material and did well or whether you completely missed the point and failed.

Assessment is the evaluation of knowledge and skills. Assessment is a very good thing because it lets students and teachers know what the students understand and what they still need to learn. Take the test you took, for example: without knowing how you did, you can't really know if you understood the information you needed.

One type of assessment in education is statewide standardized tests, where every child in a particular state takes the same test under the same conditions. Some people feel that statewide tests are a great thing: they can tell the state how well a school is doing. Others feel that it doesn't help students or teachers, and they feel that there are drawbacks to statewide tests.

Let's look closer at the law that dictates the use of standardized tests, the No Child Left Behind Act, and some of the criticisms of it.

No Child Left Behind Act

Around the turn of the 21st century, people became concerned. Schools with low-income students seemed to be offering education that wasn't as good as schools with richer students. Better, more experienced teachers transferred to the nicer schools in richer neighborhoods, while poor schools were left with less experienced teachers.

Politicians saw this as a major problem and believed that increasing accountability for teachers and schools would result in education equity for all students. With that goal in mind, the No Child Left Behind Act was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in January of 2002.

The No Child Left Behind Act, sometimes referred to as NCLB, requires states to develop standardized statewide tests that align with the state's standards. It does not put forth national standards; instead, it leaves it up to the states to decide what to test and how.

However, federal funds were tied to the tests in NCLB. Schools that received Title I funds, which are federal monies provided to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, must make adequate yearly progress on the statewide tests. That is, schools must continue to improve their test scores every year in order to continue to receive their Title I funds.

For example, if you are a fifth grade teacher in a Title I school, your students this year will need to do better on the statewide tests than last year's fifth graders did. And next year's fifth graders will have to beat out this year's fifth graders on the test. If they don't, your school is in danger of being sanctioned and could even end up losing federal funding.

So, you might be asking yourself, 'What happens when a school has improved to the point where they can't improve anymore?' Well, this can in fact result in the school being penalized, which can be a problematic part of NCLB.


There's no doubt that the goals behind NCLB are noble: the idea that every child deserves the same quality of education, regardless of where they live, is the cornerstone of American democracy. But does the law itself help meet those goals?

Some people believe that it doesn't. Critics of NCLB raise several issues with the law, including:

1. Issues with what the tests measure

The idea of standardized testing is that all students are tested in the same way. But some critics point out that standardized testing might not measure student learning as well as portfolios, class work, and other performance-based assessments.

2. Teaching to the test

Hand-in-hand with the question of the validity of the tests is the criticism that NCLB has caused teachers to 'teach to the test.' That is, instead of focusing on student growth in areas of complex problem-solving and creative thinking skills, teachers are teaching the basics of how to pass the statewide tests.

3. Issues with English language learners & disabled students

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