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The Evolution of Education Policy

By Angela Ortiz

Throughout the decades of education policy, the U.S. education system has faced many challenges. In an attempt to address inequality and educational disparities, standardized testing became a common factor in policy. The implementation of standardized testing has affected students all over the country regardless of the different districts, schools, and location. This implementation, however, has significantly impacted the academic achievements within disadvantaged communities. Since the 1900’s, the concept of standardized testing has evolved but remained a steady practice in the U.S. education system. The implementation of standardized testing and lack of attention in education policy has created a system which disadvantages many students along their educational journey.

Although many factors led to the implementation of standardized testing, the need for accountability led the movement of creating a “standard” method of measuring the quality and effectiveness of the U.S education system. Researchers have pinpointed accountability as the main argument for standardized testing and identified stakeholders (taxpayers, parents, future employers) that benefited from this type of implementation. This is quite important as the effects of standardized testing had dire consequences for teachers, students, and schools which ultimately shaped the quality of education students received. [1]

As part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”, the U.S. education system became one of the targets that sought to provide Americans with equal opportunities. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act or ESEA for short, laid the foundation for future policy. The ESEA provided federal funding to primary and secondary education. Funds were authorized for professional development, instructional materials, resources to support educational programs, and parental involvement promotion. This piece of legislation  highlighted the disparities which exist within low income school districts. [2] Many criticisms arose regarding the lack of additional and necessary resources low-income communities need. Through multiple revisions, the ESEA was able to improve its resources and educational outcomes. Furthermore, the ESEA provided the framework for future policy.

In an attempt to address the criticisms of the ESEA, the Bush Administration enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which sought to improve some of the failures of ESSA. The No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and introduced standardized testing in an attempt to promote standards-based education. Under the law, states were required to test students in reading and  math throughout K-12. [3] The major focus of NCLB was to help close student achievement gaps by providing all children with an equitable opportunity to receive a high quality education. With this to mirror but improve the outcomes of previous policy. An emphasis was placed on the need for accountability in order to ensure disadvantaged students are able to achieve academic proficiency. Furthermore, NCLB stressed the need to implement educational programs and practices that were proven effective to increase student achievement which consequently allowed flexibility in the manner in which school districts used federal education funds. Lastly, there should be an increase in resources available to parents in order to create empowerment. The NCLB had  a lot of goals it sought to accomplish within a short implementation time, the reality is it had unintended consequences along the way. [3]

Although NCLB sought to improve teaching conditions, many educators felt NCLB denied room for flexibility due to its strict pacing guides and day-by-day teaching scripts. Teachers and school administrators shifted their curricular focus in an effort to raise test scores, and in some cases abandoned thoughtful, research-based classroom practices in exchange for test preparation and high performance scores. Additionally, the NCLB created higher stakes for  teachers in regards to student achievement on tests leading educators to shift their teaching strategies in order to “teach to the test”. [4] Teaching to the test may cause scores to increase, and tends to be a popular practice teachers engage in to artificially raise test scores. In some instances, these practices are encouraged by school administrators when school’s performance scores are at risk. This ultimately showcases the manner in which NCLB’s accountability stakes created impacts in actual student learning and achievement. Due to the emphasis placed on  performance scores, the larger issue as to why educational disparities continue to exist, was not addressed by the policy. [5]

Hollingworth claims rhetoric used to defend the NCLB act (and other education policy) implies if schools and teachers in high poverty areas would simply improve the manner in which they educate their students, then there would not be disparities in opportunities and would in fact dismiss race as a factor. She argues by claiming “inequities in our society extend beyond public schooling and are absolutely bound up in race.” [4] Interestingly enough, a goal of NCLB was to close the achievement gap between White and minority children. [4] Without addressing the disadvantages low-income, students of color face, the policy becomes color-blind and treats all students equally when in fact these students require additional resources, etc… “As a result, the implementation of policies based on this color-blind approach perpetuate the existing inequality between the White majority and racial minorities in the United States.” [4] Although NCLB pinpointed a key issue in educational disparities, it failed to address  the larger concept and ultimately kept the inequalities that exist within White and minority communities.

With education policy that serves to hold our education system accountable, the question arises as to who schools are accountable to. One of the most notable first implementations of

standardized testing was by the military in order to gauge the ability of U.S servicemen and assign them appropriate jobs during World War I. Over the decades, there have been variations of tests that serve to create a separation between those who are capable and those who are not. [6] After the introduction of testing in agencies such as the military, stakeholders began the implementation in areas that had effects on the public, such as the education system. When discussing the stakeholders in education policy, we can look at everyone involved. First and foremost, the students, who are impacted by the standards and testing requirements are meant to assess their capabilities. More specifically, marginalized students whose needs continue to be dismissed. Secondly, administrators, teachers, and school districts who face the consequences of low performance scores. They have a lot at stake tied to employment, pay, etc. when there is a heavy emphasis on accountability. Lastly, policymakers who defend and run on improving the education system share a stake when policies fail or create unintended issues. These particular stakeholders hold power over the improvements current and future policy have.

Since NCLB there has been movement and shifts in the approaches used in education policy. On December 10, 2015, the Obama administration shifted the test-based performance standards and created a system which provides incentives for educators in hope to learn from previous legislation. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and became fully implemented in the 2017-2018 academic year. [7] ESSA retained some of the testing requirements established by the NCLB, however it shifted accountability to the states rather than teachers, administrators. etc. One of the biggest criticisms about NCLB was the high-stakes consequences attached to student standardized test scores which pressured schools to focus on test preparation rather than diversifying the curriculum. ESSA sought to disassociate dire consequences with standardized testing which often included school closure, teacher termination, etc. In addition, under ESSA, for the first time, states were  instructed to use more than academic factors in their accountability system used to measure school performance such as attendance, school climate, availability of advanced coursework, etc. [8]

Furthermore, incentives were created in an attempt to produce better results from schools but to encourage other forms of learning and innovation. Incentives such as “Race to the Top Fund” encourage teachers to provide a higher quality education to their students in hope to reach higher state standards, improve teaching quality, and increase college readiness. The $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund served as a federal investment in reform. The program included $4 billion for statewide reform grants and $350 million to support states working together to improve the quality of state assessments. The ESSA created a different approach in education policy which addresses the failures of previous policy and strived to build on the inner motivation of teachers and administrators to provide quality education to its students. [9]

There has been progress since the first implementation of education policy although it did not come easy, we are now in a place where academic achievement is not solely based on standardized testing. The role of standardized testing has impacted the opportunities of students by placing pressures on their performance scores which affects their ability to truly learn. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, the unintended consequences highlighted the additional revisions needed to truly address educational disparities in the United States of America. There is still room to improve education policy and produce its initial intended effects.


  1. Wiliam, Dylan. “Standardized testing and school accountability.” Educational Psychologist 45, no. 2 (2010): 107-122
  2. Johnson, Lyndon, Barack Obama, Thorner, Nancy J. Thorner, Thorner, Josey, Josey, Scary Department of Education Bills, World Truth Movement, and Rochester Schools. “Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.” Social Welfare History Project, April 23, 2020. ation-act-of-1965/.
  3. House, White. “Foreword by President George W. Bush.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed April 23, 2020.
  4. Hollingworth, Liz. 2008. “Unintended Educational and Social Consequences of the No Child Left behind Act No School Left Behind: Providing Equal Educational Opportunities.” Journal of Gender, Race & Justice 12 (2): 311–28.
  5. Amrein-Beardsley, Audrey. 2009. “The Unintended, Pernicious Consequences of ‘Staying the Course’ on the United States’ No Child Left Behind Policy.” International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership 4 (1–11): 1–13.
  6. Alcocer, Paulina, and Nea. “History of Standardized Testing in the United States.” NEA. Accessed April 5, 2020.
  7. Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week. Education Week , October 25, 2018. -summary.html.
  8. OBrien, Anne. “5 Ways ESSA Impacts Standardized Testing.” Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, January 28, 2016.
  9. Hamilton, Justin. “Delaware and Tennessee Win First Race to The Top Grants.” Delaware and Tennessee Win First Race to The Top Grants | U.S. Department of Education, March 29, 2010.

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