Data: Student Achievement in the Era of Accountability

The Education Week Research Center looks at student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2003 to 2015, a period overlapping with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Data: Student Achievement in the Era of Accountability

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, ushered in an unprecedented role for federal policies intended to hold schools accountable for student achievement. Over nearly a decade and a half that followed, both proponents and critics have looked to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a critical barometer of the outcomes of the first 21st century reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s success.

The Education Week Research Center examined student achievement in this NCLB-accountability era by highlighting NAEP results from 2003 to 2015. Although the volatile debates over the law’s merits may leave no clear or final verdict regarding its impact on student achievement, the law will undoubtedly continue to define an era in American education. This era officially ended when President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 10, 2015. Although this latest reauthorization is not a carbon copy of NCLB, the similarities that do exist mean that the outcomes of the 2002 law will likely remain relevant for years to come.

Nation Sees Achievement Progress

When viewed over time, scores on NAEP indicate a modest degree of improvement in the nation’s academic achievement. From 2003 to 2015, the combined proficiency rate for 4th and 8th graders in reading and math increased from 29.6 to 34.8 out of 100. Although this long-term pattern signals progress, a 1.2 point decline between 2013 and 2015 makes the future direction of achievement trends more uncertain. At the high school level, the combined proficiency rate for 12th graders climbed from 27.6 in 2005 to 30.3 in 2013, the most recent year of data available.

Progress Widely Shared, But Disparities Remain

Between 2003 and 2015, major racial and ethnic groups all saw progress in student achievement. Over that span, Asian students made the largest strides, with a combined NAEP proficiency rate climbing from 41.2 to 55.9. Rates for Asian and White students remain substantially higher than those of their American Indian, Black, and Latino peers.

Poverty Gap Grows Wider

Large and persistent poverty-based disparities continue to characterize the nation’s academic achievement. The combined NAEP proficiency rate for students in poverty increased from 14.2 in 2003 to 20.9 in 2015. Despite those gains, the gulf that separates low income students from their more affluent peers expanded by 3.8 points over that period.

Gains Occur Amid Growing Diversity

The nation’s achievement gains between 2003 and 2015 took place during a period when the student population became more diverse. Students from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups, whose achievement, on average, lags behind their white peers, now represent a larger share of enrollment. In the 2002-03 school year, about four in 10 students enrolled in pre-K through grade 12, nationwide, were non-white. By 2013-14, the most recent year of data available, non-white students made up half of the nation’s public school population. Federal projections indicated that the non-white enrollment would become a majority by the 2014-15 school year and would reach 54 percent by 2024.

Racial and Ethnic Composition of School Population Changes

Demographic changes have reshaped the nation’s school population over the past decade. A rapid increase in the percent of Latino students has fueled that transformation. In the 2002-03 school year, Latino students made up 17.7 percent of enrollment in pre-K through grade 12. By 2013-14, one-quarter of all students were Latino. The percent of Asian students also increased slightly.

Demographics of Population Shift

The percent of pre-K through 12th grade students receiving free or reduced-price lunch (a common proxy for poverty) has increased in the nation’s public schools. Roughly four in 10 (39.7 percent) pre-K-12 students were signed up for the subsidized lunch program in 2002-03, compared with more than half (51.5 percent) in 2013-14. The percent of English-language learners nationwide increased from 8.6 percent to 9.2 percent over this span. By contrast, the share of students with disabilities declined slightly.

Scores Vary Across States

A sizable gap separates the highest- and lowest-scoring states on NAEP. Massachusetts was the only state with a combined proficiency rate reaching 50 points out of 100 in 2015. Two other states—Minnesota and New Hampshire—record rates between 45 and 49. By contrast, rates in nine states are below 30 points.

Most States Improve

Achievement improved in nearly every state between 2003 and 2015. The District of Columbia made the largest strides, with a combined NAEP proficiency rate increasing by 15 points. Substantial gains in Arizona, Hawaii, and Tennessee were the only other instances of double-digit progress. The majority of states saw gains of 5 to 9 points. By contrast, rates in Michigan declined by a point.

Few States Narrow Poverty Gap

Achievement for low-income students improved in 49 states between 2003 and 2015, but most states were still unable to reduce the stubborn gap between those students and their more-affluent counterparts in that time. The combined NAEP proficiency rate for low-income students in Massachusetts increased by 12.8 points over that span, the largest gain in the nation. By contrast, rates for economically disadvantaged students declined in North Dakota and South Dakota. Only Illinois and New York narrowed the poverty gap by a full point or more.

Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of data from U.S. Department of Education, 2003-2015 | Design: Vanessa Solis