NCLB Turns 20: When Assessment is Used to Disguise a Dark Agenda

This January the vaunted education legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will turn 20. Signed in the wake of 9/11 and sold as a revolutionary piece of legislation to help all children learn, NCLB leveraged a general naivete of how to measure student success to support an agenda of private interventions that generated billions of dollars in profits for shareholders while offering little in the way of fair and high-quality education. NCLB caused such a dramatic shift in the fabric of education that it forever changed the schooling landscape in a way that effectively rendered future policy defenseless against the forces of privatization. Moreover it revealed the deeply anti-democratic sentiments at the core of American society that sought to limit the ability to empower the broader public out of fear of another civil rights movement. Twenty years later, the lessons of NCLB show how critical it is for assessment professionals to be more than merely skilled technicians, but clear about the political motivations behind the data they are asked to collect and present.

How the Law Worked

While a long and complex piece of legislation, the core of NCLB consisted of an overly simplistic assessment plan. Like so many measurement tools in education, it failed to distinguish the actual work of the school and rather simply rewarded those that benefited from a population of well-provided-for children from economically stable families. As a forerunner to attempted privatization, the law aimed not to assess the quality of a school, but merely target and provide an easily explainable reason for why it would be subject to a host of privatization experiments.

The method was overly simplistic. NCLB divided schools into two groups. The first were schools receiving Title I funds under the original stipulations of ESEA, who had more than 40% of their students receiving free and reduced lunch. These schools comprised 58% of US schools and, by definition, were poorer and taught more children of color. To retain their Title funds, they would have to increase their proficiency each year across all subgroups until reaching 100% proficiency in 2014 – something widely understood as both unrealistic and mathematically impossible. The second group comprised schools who did not receive Title I funds – who thus lacked the financial tether by which the poorer schools could be controlled. These schools would also be required to meet learning goals yet rarely faced consequences when those goals were not met.

While the mathematics was unrealistic, the idea of using percentages of children reaching proficiency was deeply problematic. Proficiency is historically tethered to the capacities of middle-class white children, predicated on the assumption that their external needs – health, economic stability, family supports, community supports, social and emotional well-being, access to supplemental learning opportunities – are met. Eric Hanushek, one of the founders of standardized testing, has stated that, except in rare cases, about 10% of achievement is attributable to factors inside the school, with family education and income far outweighing any school-based factors. Nonetheless, the law was set up to not measure how good or innovative a school was, how much it could grow or use new methods, engage parents, encourage reading and the other types of habits that would grow children year after year and build their capacity and skills, but rather, simply, how many of its students could meet the standards of children with a privileged upbringing.

The law also strongly favored the creation of publicly funded choice schools run by private organizations exempt from many education laws and standards of practice, but because they received public money, would be able to call themselves “public” schools and present an “alternative” option. These choice schools, while not legally held to the same standard of excellence, were nonetheless politically positioned to overtake any traditional school that was not achieving its proficiency goals.


NCLB had a predictable roll-out. At-risk schools narrowed curriculum to focus on test prep for English and Math (Au, 2007). Choice schools selected the easiest and cheapest students to teach while creating artificial barriers for those more costly or challenging to teach. The wealthier, left-alone schools, unbothered by the threat of doom for insufficient test preparation, continued to teach deeply in a liberal curriculum, encouraging critical thinking, conceptual knowledge development, deep analysis and slow, steady growth. Meanwhile private companies built an entire cottage industry around testing, prep materials, executive coaching, teacher development, online learning support, tutoring, and a host of other gimmicks promising outcomes via the intentionally biased measures they themselves had designed. These services vacuumed up significant portions of school budgets and which reclaimed the time of programs like art and music which were often forced to close. (Au, 2007)

The law distinctly encouraged schools to prioritize sorting over teaching. In a market economy, schools were supposed to compete, elevating the best schools and allowing the worst to fall to market forces. But to gain a market advantage, it was not in a school’s best interest to create a thoughtful curriculum aligned to the needs of their students, but rather just find students that could achieve with the curriculum they habitually provided.

And when curating high performing students was not possible, special mechanisms were established to ensure choice schools would not be penalized for underperformance – which still enabled a school to underfund learning in favor of shareholder reward. Private investment brought an army of private lobbying, aided by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to create laws such as the Virtual Public Schools and 21st Century Schools Acts that maximized the amount of money a school could gather from a state. Numerous states would come to pass legislation that exempted charter schools from many of the requirements of traditional schools such as making their data public or having to hire qualified teachers.

Such an environment enabled the creation of a near entirely disposable workforce of recent college grads willing to work long hours for little pay and who would leave the profession prior to gaining any seniority and, most importantly, joining the teachers’ union that would be progressively stripped of its membership and subsequent dues over the course of a generation, thus neutralizing it as a voter force. Coincidentally, the inexperienced teachers only enhanced the need for more prepared curriculum and training that could be purchased directly from the private market – sometimes the very same companies running the schools.

These carrots proved to be highly enticing to the private sector who, seemingly overnight, found in their conscience a need to help education for the betterment of society. In 2000, NCES data reports fewer than 2000 charter schools in existence but by 2017 that number had grown to over 7,000.(US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, 2017) These numbers don’t even capture the 25% of charter schools that closed within four years, and the 40% that closed within ten years, the estimated 867,000 students that were shuffled around in the process and the over $1 billion lost to mismanagement or just pure theft.

The formula for privatization was clearly laid out in NCLB. It consisted of six simple steps: (1) Assess poorer schools in a way that pre-ordains their failure, (2) Draw students away from those schools by offering alternative choice schools operated by privately run, publicly funded management organizations, (3) Allow these public/private schools to curate the students they know will perform and demonstrate efficacy of the model, (4) Ensure the lower performing schools don’t have to publish achievement data so they can still attract students and their funding, (5) Leverage cheap, temporary, exploitative labor that reduces costs and weakens the teacher’s union, (6) Sustain the parallel, private system as a perceived higher quality alternative to the traditional public system and continue this process year after year until it becomes the dominant mode of schooling.


When the 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores were released, the results showed that the results after 17 years and billions of dollars the reforms had actually increased the achievement gap (US Department of Education et al., 2020). A New York Times headline succinctly stated “It just isn’t working,” echoing the sentiment from a cross-section of education and policy experts from Washington and across the nation. Yet, unsurprisingly, the call to abandon the reforms has not come from anyone other than the same people – teachers and activists – who have been critical of it all along.

To an assessment professional it raises a question, the answer to which is very telling: If the reforms have had a negative result on system performance and effectiveness, why are the data that were used to call for reforms now inconsequential when offering proof of the reform’s failures? The answer, simply put, is there were two different sets of outcomes: one to create the illusions of failure necessary to implement and continue corporate reforms, and a second, less visible, about increasing education’s market capitalization and the transfer of public dollars into private hands. In other words, the reform was never about achievement and the evidence for this can be found in the NCLB’s DNA.

Lobbied heavily by the private education companies, many with close political ties such as McGraw-Hill, and signed into law in the weeks after 9/11, NCLB had a feel of crisis capitalism from the start. The companies who lobbied for and wrote the learning standards as well as the test to determine proficiency, would also be the ones selling the curriculum and support materials to help schools realize the outcomes in their students.

By 1999, The Economist was already calling education the next big investment area “ripe for privatization” and commodification (Economist, 1999). Rupert Murdoch called education a $500 billion a year industry waiting to be disrupted (Mencimer, 2011). In 2000, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin were identified as Bush stocks by the Wall Street Journal and executives were on record as saying, “the Bush education plan reads like our business plan (Metcalf, 2002).” Between 1998 and 2012, state expenditures on testing grew from $141 million to over $1.7 billion (Ujifusa, 2012). Market capitalization in the sector doubled, and venture capital investment grew from being non-existent in 2000 to over $1.8 billion today (Holon IQ, 2021).

Meanwhile charter executives were raking in public money. In 2013, the NY Post found that some executives were earning more than double the New York City Chancellor’s salary for operating a small handful of schools relative to the 2,000+ schools in the NYC DOE. This phenomenon was seen across the country in cities like Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles who had bought into the corporate reforms. That money was formerly going directly to school programs and students but was now paying administrative salaries. These business leaders also received numerous tax breaks and shelters from operating in the “non-profit” space of public education.

In a broader context, the origins of these education reforms point to a far more troubling agenda that sought to intentionally limit the delivery of education to students whose empowerment posed a threat to the status quo. As early as 1965, conservative leaders such as Ronald Regan, Spiro Agnew, and Richard Nixon spoke of the dangers posed by the civil rights movement, their desire to charge tuition to limit college attendance, and assuage fears of an “educated proletariat” from being realized in America. This sentiment was codified in the now infamous memo drafted by Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell that painted business owners as the new victims of the demand for individual rights and sought to quell the uprising through de-democratization. The 1970s saw the emergence of the right-wing think tanks such as Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, and ALEC that came to control and define the Regan administration, laying the foundations for test-based outcomes and privatization that enabled state-led policy experimentation through the 1980s and 1990s. Texas emerged during this time as the state having one of the most aggressive testing initiatives which, when merged with the school choice movements prominent in other states, became the national approach when then Governor George W. Bush was elected President in 2000.

From the perspective of the reformers these efforts were not failing – they were doing exactly what they were intended to do. The results were expected to increase shareholder wealth in the private sector while sabotaging public schools to ensure that they were unable to provide education beyond a narrow set of tested skills. This, in turn, would prepare students for little more than the low-wage jobs that had come to dominate the labor market in the wake of NAFTA and China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization, which has decimated the manufacturing sector and its unions.

When examined within the context of broader social and economic reforms, it’s not hard to see a pattern emerging. Notably, America’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years in the region shows failure to achieve the stated outcomes of freedom, prosperity, and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. The maneuver, however, generated tens of billions of dollars in contracts for shareholders of Raytheon, Lockheed, Honeywell, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Haliburton, and numerous other defense contractors. Military failure, it seems, matters less when there’s financial success – and this is a telling detail about U.S. foreign policy.

America has always had a problematic relationship with governments that provide a strong social safety net for their populations and interventions abroad have for decades hidden behind the thin veil of liberating markets and opening them to US investors. Such practice has been the bedrock of empire and colonization since the 1600s in Great Britain and has affected every corner of the world. These tactics always involve first sabotaging the existing public institutions and elevating imperial-backed private options to ensure they gain a foothold and are viewed as the only feasible option in an economy whose public infrastructure was being dismantled. In 1970s and 80s in America, however, (and in the U.K. under Margaret Thatcher), these foreign tactics, codified in the form of neoliberalism, were turned inward to be used at home, signaling a clear shift in domestic policy that pitted people in need of a strong public service foundation against those who could afford to live without it. This once seemingly small rift, now backed by policy, has ballooned into our divided nation of today. The story of our own education systems is perhaps the best example of how something so complex can be deployed.

While market solutions can certainly be effective at advancing research and speed to market, there are certain institutions required to guarantee a nation’s people have access to meaningfully participate in those free markets rather than fall victims to them. And in the pantheon of institutions too-delicate-to-privatize, education sits a first among equals, just above healthcare and prisons. It is the Rosetta stone in the arc of justice, and the one human right that empowers and enables the people to use the tools of a democratic system to their favor – allowing them to protect the other institutions that, once privatized, feed off a public that is uneducated and easily manipulated by propaganda.


There are two key conclusions to be drawn from the cautionary tale of NCLB. First, is that democracy’s institutions need new defenders. When the senate voted 87-10 to pass NCLB in 2001 it signaled more than just a shift in education, but that our legislators, the defenders of public institutions and promoters of the social good, missed this. They lacked the ability to understand the longer-term impacts of such basic decisions such as how to measure success and the ability to think more deeply about the nature of the problem. Or, more disturbingly, they were co-opted into the argument that education is no longer a sacred institution and it too is for sale. All this begs the question: Who then is protecting the institutions?

Assessment professionals are best positioned to understand how these mechanisms will play-out three and four moves ahead on the chessboard and it is up to us to sound the alarm. NCLB is proof of what happens when we allow the business community and special interests to define our outcomes and thus shape what we do. Our systems deviate from our mission to instead serve political goals rather than education goals, and this almost always involves redirecting funds in a way that generates private profits over public improvement and, in a manner that increases inequality.

It is no longer sufficient for assessment professionals to merely be skilled statisticians or simply knowledgeable in our field. Rather we need to be aware of that which precedes how we are asked to collect, manage and present data and get at the objectives of the various agendas that are furthered through our work. Moreover, we must build this capacity in our profession, and expand the scope of our thinking from simple skill enhancement to instead working to build a broader understanding of the political landscape and ecosystems that both demand and rely upon the data we produce. We need to ensure that our Provosts, Presidents, Superintendents and CEOs are keenly aware of the broader implications for objectives and stated goals and be able to recognize and communicate when an institutional goal may not be good for the broader community or exists just to serve the ego of an individual rather than the betterment of a system.

Second, and perhaps the most important takeaway from the cautionary tale of NCLB, is that amidst a crisis, we need to be increasingly vigilant about the changes happening right in front of us to ensure they aren’t designed to quietly subvert this bedrock of democracy and further de-democratize the nation. In the haze of 9/11, when a nation was consumed and overwhelmed by questions about safety, security, privacy, and terror, the Patriot Act was passed in the name of national security. Only today have we begun to truly understand the ways in which its surveillance mechanisms continue to violate constitutionally protected privacy and individual rights, but which will endure because the systems that were built and designed during this time can never be uncreated.

The current crisis has disrupted life, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and impacted day to day education at the most granular level of how a teacher interacts with his or her students. What new mechanisms will be coming down the pike in the coming months that on their surface seem innocuous but upon closer investigation could spell the end of our institutions? The nation has already begun to see under-the-cover-of-night votes in place like Texas over restricting voter access, or women’s rights, fraudulent attempts to overturn elections, covert redistricting efforts in advance of key house races in 2022, massive consolidations of wealth for the 1% and attempts by private equity to buy up the housing stock at a time when eviction moratoriums have expired. The precedent for crisis capitalism is omnipresent, as is the precedent for deeply divisive behavior that will target the most vulnerable.

Education will continue to be attacked. But in an era of metrics and measurable outcomes, assessment professionals have an opportunity to become the guardians of democracy in way few could have imagined just a decade ago. This is a moment to revolutionize our work and ensure the fight continues for public education to empower the public good.


Dr. Michael A. Seelig is Executive Officer at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York (CUNY).


Au, W. (2007). High-Stakes Testing and Curricular Control: A Qualitative Metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.×07306523

Economist. (1999). Reading, writing and enrichment. The Economist.        

Holon IQ. (2021). 250 Global Education Stocks.

Mencimer, S. (2011, September 23). Fox in the Schoolhouse: Rupert Murdoch Wants to Teach Your Kids! Mother Jones.

Metcalf, S. (2002, January 10). Reading Between the Lines. The Nation.     

Ujifusa, A. (2012, November 29). Standardized Testing Costs States $1.7 Billion a Year, Study Says. Education Week.

US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, & National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Highlights of U.S. PISA 2018 Results Web Report (NCES 2020-166).

US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data. (2017). Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 1990-91 through 2015-16.

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