For now, though, the results are less clear. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation's report card, have climbed slowly in reading and math for some groups, but the number of students who are "proficient" is still discouraging.
Just 41 percent of all white fourth graders meet the standard in reading, for instance. For both reading and math, only 13 percent of all black fourth graders are "proficient." Teachers complain of the stigma of being a failing school, and principals worry about the myriad ways they could end up on a watch list.
The Department of Education emphasizes the long-term NAEP trends, noting that more progress in the reading scores of 9-year-olds was made between 1999 and 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. But in general, even supporters say they're happier with the conversation the law has jumpstarted than with the results.
"It's been more effective at capturing attention and getting the rhetorical attention than in actually prompting people to go after the hard stuff they're going to need to go after to actually close these gaps," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which focuses on closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students. She credits NCLB with some improvement in the achievement gap, but would like to see teacher quality standards better enforced.
One change that seems likely to get traction is a shift toward a "growth" model of assessing schools, in which schools with students who come in far below grade level get credit for helping them make big strides, even if they still fall short of proficiency – so long as, the Department of Education emphasizes, they do get students to a proficient level eventually. The department has already approved pilot programs in five states, and wants Congress to include such a model in NCLB.
Still, some critics want far more sweeping changes. A coalition called the Forum on Educational Accountability now has more than 100 groups – including the NAACP and the National Education Association – which have signed a list of 14 requested changes to the law. They include lowering the current proficiency targets, providing more assistance to failing schools, getting rid of sanctions with less record of improvement, and encouraging testing designed to measure higher thinking skills and performance throughout the year.