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Is NCLB Intentionally Leaving Some Kids Behind?

Focus on high-stakes testing means some lower-performing students may get less attention

By Kevin Hart

January 25, 2010 -- When the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law eight years ago, it was hailed as an educational framework that would close achievement gaps and ensure all students had the opportunity to succeed. But a disturbing picture is emerging as educators say NCLB’s focus on high-stakes testing is leading some schools to purposely leave students behind in order to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

Almost since NCLB’s inception, educators have raised concerns that it was creating a culture where schools were forced to “teach to the test.” That meant teachers were spending less time helping students develop critical thinking skills, and some schools cut instruction time for subjects that were not tested, such as the arts.

But because schools are under pressure to make AYP, which typically means a certain percentage of students must pass state standardized tests, some teachers say they are being told to spend less time working with students who have very little chance of passing. Instead, they are being asked to direct their energies toward so-called "bubble kids" -- students who could pass standardized testing with a little extra help.

Translation? The students who need the most help may not be getting it and may fall further behind their classmates.

This topic was the source of  intense discussion recently on NEA Today’s Facebook page. Dama Marie, a first-grade teacher in Las Vegas, said last year the teachers at her school were instructed to devote their resources to bubble kids, in order to help the school make AYP.

“We were all told to tutor the kids that had a better chance of passing,” she said. “I did not like leaving my low students to fend for themselves.”

Karla Feuerstein Keller, a third-grade teacher in White Bear Lake, MN, said administrators in her district have handed out the same advice.

Educators say the pressure to make AYP is especially acute at Title I schools, where schools that persistently fail to make AYP can be subjected to a series of sanctions ranging from dismissing the principal and staff to being taken over by the state.

The heavy emphasis on testing isn’t just harming lower-performing students, according to Steve DiNenno, a middle-school teacher in Norristown, PA. He’s just as concerned about how teaching to the test is affecting gifted students.

“Those students who have always performed above grade level have been delegated to sitting in classes praying for an opportunity to learn something new,” he said, adding that he has seen the academic performance of some of these students suffer as a result. 

“If everyone would realize that passing AYP is about having a balance of great teaching and engaging, relevant curriculum tied to state standards, then we would really see change,” said Cindy Townsend, a middle-school teacher in Umatilla, OR. “Teaching to the test doesn't help our students become good learners.”


NEA VP Lily Eskelsen blogs about "bubble kids"

NEA's position on ESEA reauthorization

NEA Today's Facebook page