Download the complete report below.

Executive Summary

The No Child Left behind Act of 2002 (NCLB) was enacted to shine more light on student performance previously hidden by school-wide, aggregate achievement results. NCLB makes important progress toward that goal by requiring states to report the performance of various student sub-groups, including minority children, students with disabilities, and non-native English speakers. One of the country’s most prestigious distinctions is to be named a U.S. Department of Education No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Blue Ribbon School.

In 2007, only 133 public schools nationwide were honored as Blue Ribbon Schools for scoring in the top 10 percent on state assessments. “These schools are proving that when we raise the bar our children will rise to the challenge,” according to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.[i] These schools also did not enroll many from disadvantaged backgrounds, and a closer look at these award-winning schools reveals that many of them do not live up to that touted “Blue-Ribbon” label.

On average, just 11 percent of students at those 2007 Blue-Ribbon schools came from impoverished backgrounds, three percent of students were classified with limited English proficiency (LEP), and only eight percent of students had disabilities.[ii] The median home value in the schools’ neighborhoods exceeded $300,000 on average, and the median family income approached $100,000. Yet at one in three of those Blue-Ribbon schools, at least 25 percent of students in at least one grade were not proficient in at least one core subject tested.

On average, more than a quarter of students in two grades scored below proficiency in two subjects at those underperforming 2007 Blue-Ribbon schools. Specifically, at underperforming award schools, the percentage of students in at least one grade who did not score proficient ranged from 26 to 62 percent in reading, and from 26 to 56 percent in math. Many Blue-Ribbon schools that underperformed in those core subjects also had similarly poor performance in at least one grade in science.

This analysis finds many states are engaging in NCLB accountability-avoidance, unwittingly aided by the Blue-Ribbon award designation. Such avoidance is likely to increase as the 2013-2014 school year deadline for 100 percent student proficiency approaches, making a U.S. Department of Education blue ribbon an increasingly unreliable indicator of academic quality in the coming years, absent necessary reforms. Instead of piling on additional, expensive federal mandates, this analysis recommends improved public accountability through greater transparency to preserve the delicate balance between flexibility for states and accurate information for parents.  

Specific recommendations include reporting grade-level student proficiency in all core subjects tested as a condition for receiving federal NCLB funds. State proficiency results should also be reported alongside nationally-representative proficiency results to make declines in state standards more apparent. To ensure universally rigorous assessment, states should publicize annual passing scores on their tests and their annual student proficiency targets. The best accountability assurance of all-better than any blue ribbon-is for the U.S. Department of Education to provide parents with information that is both accurate and actionable, then enforce their children’s right of exit from underperforming schools.