Rachel Carson middle school in Herndon, Va., is full of winners. In the past year alone, its students have taken home trophies for all kinds of competitions, from the science bowl and debate league to the state's chess championship and a haiku contest. The school has won a governor's award for educational excellence for the past four years and has been named a school to watch by a national forum for middle-school reform every year since 2004. And yet to the federal government, Rachel Carson, like many other well-to-do suburban schools in the U.S., is failing.
Since 2002 the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has raised the bar each year for how many of a school's students must pass statewide math and reading tests; if a school fails repeatedly to make "adequate yearly progress," teachers and administrators could lose their jobs or, in the worst-case scenario, the whole place could be shut down. Rachel Carson, which is in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. and whose student population is 81% white or Asian, has high average scores. But because the law is designed to highlight achievement gaps--breaking out test results by such categories as race, gender and income--even high-performing schools can no longer ignore their problem areas. Last year, Rachel Carson started an after-school boot camp for its low performers, tracked their progress on practice tests every few weeks and offered cram sessions on four Saturdays before the test. Despite these efforts, 69 of the school's black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged and special-education kids--5% of the student body--did not score high enough. And so for the first time, Rachel Carson, home to a gifted-and-talented center and 1,001 trophies, joined the estimated 48% of U.S. schools that failed to make the grade last year.
In many ways, Rachel Carson showcases exactly what NCLB set out do to: gather detailed demographic data on student performance and light a fire under complacent schools--suburban and urban alike. But grouping a generally successful school with dropout factories that don't teach the majority of their students much of anything highlights one of NCLB's many failures.