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No Child Left Behind: A Federal, State, and District- Level Look at the First Year

Unparalleled Reports from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University Examine Landmark Public Education Act

Today, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (CRP) releases the findings of a four-part study examining the landmark No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act through its first year of implementation (2002-2003). The research represents each level of government--federal, state, and district--and focuses on state-federal relationships and the effects of school choice and supplemental education services on school districts. The reports take a unique approach and examine, at every level, the status of NCLB, as well as the intended and unintended consequences of the law, how the various levels of government work together to implement it, and how it works for low-income and minority students.

The reports show educators at all levels struggling to implement a dramatic and extremely complex change in federal education policy, which radically alters the role of federal and state governments while imposing unprecedented responsibilities and accountability for test score gains. The reports demonstrate that federal accountability rules have derailed state reforms and assessment strategies, that the requirements have no common meaning across state lines, and that the sanctions fall especially hard on minority and integrated schools, asking for much less progress from affluent suburban schools. The market- and choice-oriented policies, which were imposed on schools "in need of improvement," have consumed resources and local administrative time but have small impacts and are not being seriously evaluated.

"The federal role in American education has been an issue of great sensitivity in American politics for generations," says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and professor of education and social policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The reality for too many public educators is confusion and frustration as No Child Left Behind is leaving too many children...and teachers...behind. I firmly believe, and this report supports, the time has come for local, state and federal educators and officials to work together to sort out the pluses and minuses and adopt administrative and legislative remedies to save the good objectives of the program and remove the arbitrary and unworkable provisions."

The four reports were conducted by Gary Orfield and principal investigators Jimmy Kim and Gail Sunderman with the CRP. They encompass six states and eleven dynamic school districts to create a representative national sample. (States: Arizona, California, Illinois, Georgia, New York and Virginia. Districts: Los Angeles Unified School District; Chicago Public Schools; New York City Public Schools; DeKalb County, GA; Fresno, CA; Mesa, AZ; Washington Elementary District, AZ; Buffalo, NY; Atlanta, GA; Arlington, VA; and Richmond, VA.) The states and districts were chosen to reflect the diversity of the country and to examine with special care the impacts of the law on minority students and schools.

Research is derived from one-on-one interviews, visits to school districts, massive analysis of state and local statistics, and analysis of government reports and documents. The studies include data collected between October 2002 and July 2003. All reports and an executive summary are available online.


The federal report, which examines the status of federal-state relationships during the first year, indicates that many of the conditions that would facilitate implementation of NCLB are not present.

Key Findings

  • In June of 2003, only 11 states had accountability plans that were fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education, contrary to the federal government's claim that all states were in compliance with NCLB.
  • Party alliance has not guaranteed cooperation with the federal goals, especially when they conflicted with local priorities and interfered with local control of education.
  • Though the law provides states with some money to meet the testing requirements, there is no support to assist them meeting the administrative costs of implementing other requirements.
  • District officials and local educators, who must implement the new requirements, were increasingly vocal about their objections to NCLB. Educators considered many of the NCLB provisions arbitrary and unfair, particularly the adequate yearly progress designations and testing requirements for special education students and English language learners.


The State Report examines how six states (Arizona, California, Illinois, Georgia, New York, and Virginia) designed their accountability systems to meet the Title I requirements and the implications of these provisions for schools with large numbers of low-income and minority students.

Key Findings

  • The federal accountability rules complicated state efforts to build a coherent accountability system. States layered the federal accountability requirements on top of pre-existing plans, resulting in dual accountability systems.
    • The dual accountability systems meant that schools received conflicting signals about their performance. The federal rules identified 289 schools in Arizona as low-performing and needing improvement, but these same schools met the state performance targets and earned either a "performing" or "highly performing" label. In Virginia, 723 (40% of all schools) failed to make federal AYP goals while only 402 (22%) failed to meet state accreditation standards.
  • The federal law identified schools as needing improvement on the basis of their demographic characteristics rather than their contribution to student learning.
    • Despite the demographic differences between schools needing improvement and schools meeting AYP, two-year trends in achievement scores indicate that both types of schools made similar gains in reading and math proficiency scores. Regardless of initial differences in test score levels, all schools appear to help their students make similar improvements in reading and math over two years.
    • In Illinois and New York, schools needing improvement enrolled over twice as many minority and low-income students, on average, than schools meeting AYP.
    • In California, schools identified as needing improvement were more likely to contain a Black, Latino, socio-economically disadvantaged, and limited English proficient subgroup than schools making AYP.


The Choice Report examined the schooling opportunities available to minority and low-income students in the 11 urban districts--including Los Angeles Unified School District, the Chicago Public Schools, and the New York City Public Schools--in six states that were selected to represent different regions of the country.

Key Findings

  • Although thousands of students in these districts were eligible to transfer schools, fewer than 3% of eligible students requested to move schools.
    • In nation's two largest school districts--Chicago and New York--just 1.9% of eligible students requested transfers in Chicago, and only 2.3% of eligible students requested transfers in New York.
    • No district in our study was able to approve all transfer requests. In general, districts with fewer transfer requests were more likely to grant transfers.
  • The Title I transfer policy provided limited opportunities for students to transfer to schools with high achievement levels and lower poverty rates.
    • In Mesa, sending schools had a higher average poverty rate (66%) than receiving schools (48%), and receiving schools had a higher average poverty rate than eligible receiving schools (28%). These figures indicate that eligible receiving schools with the lowest poverty schools were not chosen to accept student transfers. Chicago, Buffalo, and DeKalb showed similar patterns.
    • Despite the slightly lower average poverty rates in receiving schools, they still had average poverty rates that were higher than 40%, which is the criterion used to determine eligibility for schoolwide programs.
  • The federal law concentrates the costs and burdens of choice implementation in high-poverty urban districts and provides no incentives for local officials to adopt workable and effective transfer policies such as inter-district choice plans.


The Supplemental Education Services report examines the ability of districts to implement the requirement that schools offer supplemental educational services to students attending poorly performing schools.

Key Findings

    • The potential for supplemental educational services to fragment Title I is significant.
      • Supplemental services shift the focus from improving poorly performing schools to improving individual student achievement, but only for those requesting services.
    • Demand for services in the first year was low, with fewer than 16% of eligible students requesting and receiving supplemental services. In most districts in the study this was less than 5%.
      • Date show that this provision disproportionately impacts districts serving large numbers of low income and minority students, yet there is little empirical evidence of its effectiveness for the most vulnerable students.
    • Districts faced significant administrative burdens in implementing supplemental education services and in assessing the effect of this policy on student achievement and Title I schools.

Commenting on the shift in federal-state relationships, Principal Investigator Gail Sunderman said, "We are in the early stages of this shift and our research indicates that there is tremendous inequality across states in their capacity to implement the new requirements yet they are all held to the same standards. Having the federal government legislate how schools should be performing is going to be much more difficult than the rhetoric suggests."

With respect to the research on test-based accountability, Principal Investigator Jimmy Kim adds: "While we embrace the overall objective of the federal law--to narrow the achievement gap among different subgroups of students--NCLB's test-based accountability policies fail to reward schools for making progress and unfairly punish schools serving large numbers of low-income and minority students. Researchers need to examine both the intended and unintended consequences of NCLB's accountability policies on minority students and the schools they attend."

The Civil Rights Project's work in elementary and secondary education is funded by grants from the National Education Association, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Mott Foundation.

About the Authors

Gary Orfield is Professor and founding co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, and the author of many books and articles on school desegregation and other civil rights issues and his work was cited by the Supreme Court in its recent decision on affirmative action.

Jimmy Kim, Ed.D., is a research associate for K-12 education with the Civil Rights Project. He received his doctorate in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since 1999, he has been a research associate at the Center for Evaluation, which is housed in the Department of Statistics at Harvard University. His research has focused on the effects of compensatory education programs on the racial achievement gap. At the Civil Rights Project, he is currently involved in a five-year study that will examine state implementation of the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 and the effects of grade-level testing requirements on the achievement of low-income and minority students.

Gail Sunderman, Ph.D. is a research associate in K-12 education for the Civil Rights Project. She received her doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on educational policy and politics, and urban school reform, including the development and implementation of education policy and the impact of policy on the educational opportunities for at-risk students. At the Civil Rights Project, she is involved in a five-year study examining the implementation of the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001 and how this legislation influences educational change in states and local school districts.

For More Information

Contact Gary Orfield at 617-496-4824 or


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