In the past 15 years, education researchers have tracked the wake of a tsunami of education changes that swept through states under the No Child Left Behind Act—the 2002 revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—from new ways of holding schools accountable for student achievement to national experiments on school improvement.
There followed enough research to fill a school auditorium—70,000 articles, by one rough estimate, and still counting—with academics in fields from psychology to economics to political science weighing in on the debate. In the barest terms, lawmakers’ goal to have 100 percent of students reading and solving math problems on grade level by 2014 has not come to pass—but the research is decidedly mixed on whether the law’s multitude of accountability provisions were effective or not.
The following summaries highlight studies on key aspects of accountability published after 2007, when the law was originally scheduled to be reauthorized, and that looked at the main implementation of the law, excluding individual state waivers provided under the Obama administration.
“State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act: Volume IX, Accountability Under NCLB: Final Report”
Basics: This 2010 report, conducted by the RAND Corp. and the American Institutes for Research. It found that more than half of schools identified for improvement under NCLB by 2006-07 were clustered in only 177 districts. Three out of five schools nationwide met the law’s yardstick of adequate yearly progress, or AYP, in 2005-06— “a nearly identical proportion as in 2003-04 and 2004-05.” Only 1 in 5 schools actually changed ratings from year to year, and fewer than 1 in 10 improved in their accountability designation. Nevertheless, states varied significantly in how many schools were identified for improvement, based largely on the strictness of their initial AYP targets; the proportion of states’ schools making AYP ranged from 90 percent to less than 30 percent.
Cautions: The study provides a comprehensive and detailed look at implementation across the country, but it is generally descriptive and leaves open why the implementation and effects of the law varied so much from state to state.
“The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement”
Basics: This study,, compared changes in math and reading test scores between states that had accountability systems in place before NCLB and those that started their systems after the law passed. It found the NCLB law’s passage was associated with significant improvements in the growth of math-test performance among 4th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and with improvements for low-achieving students and those in poverty in 8th grade. It found no improvements in reading at either grade. The study also suggested that expansion of preschool education in the 1990s would not explain achievement growth seen during the NCLB years.
Cautions: The study used a comparative interrupted time series, which is not considered as strong a method as an experimental or quasi-experimental design. Other studies since, however, have also repeated its findings using NAEP data.
Closing Achievement Gaps
“Left Behind? The Effect of No Child Left Behind on Academic Achievement Gaps”
Basics: The Stanford University study,, compared the average trends in achievement gaps within states from 1990 to 2011 and analyzed the size of gaps in states with different concentrations of minority students. Overall, the study found average racial achievement gaps did not close significantly under the NCLB law. Achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students and white students narrowed under the law in states that started out with larger racial gaps and school segregation and in states with stricter targets for racial minorities—but the achievement gaps widened in states that had started out with smaller concentrations of minority students and thus less accountability pressure for individual groups of students.
Cautions: The study did not look at potential disparities in the number of minority students who were not tested under the accountability system because of their disability status, intermittent enrollment, or other testing rules.
“Revisiting the Impact of NCLB High-Stakes School Accountability, Capacity, and Resources: State NAEP 1990-2009 Reading and Math Achievement Gaps and Trends.”
Basics: This 2012 study in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysisin 4th and 8th grade reading and math from 1990 through 2009, in states that had accountability systems before NCLB and those that did not. It found racial gaps in 8th grade math closed by a small but significant amount, 1/20th of a standard deviation, under NCLB, but found no effects on achievement gaps in reading or in 4th grade math. Moreover, the researchers suggested the changes in achievement gaps were explained better by long-term state teaching capacity than by states’ rigor in implementing NCLB accountability.
Cautions: The researchers noted that states’ implementation was too diverse to make conclusions about the effectiveness of the accountability system as a whole.
School Improvement Strategies
“The Impact of No Child Left Behind’s Accountability Sanctions on School Performance: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from North Carolina”
Basics: The 2014 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, comparing schools that barely missed or made adequate yearly progress. It found schools at the start and end of the NCLB penalties—being labeled as not meeting standards or undergoing leadership and organizational changes during school restructuring—improved significantly, with the lowest-performing students showing the most improvement. Still, the study also found no evidence of improved performance at schools entering intermediate penalties, such as being required to pay for private tutoring for students.
Cautions: While the study used a statewide sample and regression discontinuity, a well-regarded quasi-experimental research design, it looked only at the performance of students in a single state, North Carolina.
“State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act: Volume IV, Title I School Choice and Supplemental Educational Services: Interim Report”
Basics:conducted by the RAND Corp. and the American Institutes for Research (see final report, above) looked at implementation and the effects of two early penalties under the NCLB law. They required schools that repeatedly failed to make AYP to allow students to transfer to higher-achieving schools, dubbed “school choice,” or to pay for them to receive tutoring by private groups, known as “supplemental educational services.” By 2006-07, researchers found neither option was particularly well-used: Only 1 percent of the 6.9 million students eligible for school choice actually transferred, and 17 percent of students eligible for tutoring received it. Overall, the researchers found many districts had only one school available at secondary school levels, which prevented transfers. Moreover, because low-performing schools tended to cluster in the same districts, there were often few transfer options even at the elementary level. Participation in tutoring grew from 2003-04, but tutoring providers were less likely to offer services in rural districts or to middle or high school students.
Cautions: The study did not evaluate the effectiveness of transferring schools or receiving tutoring for students who participated.