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12-State Study Finds Falloff in Testing Gains After NCLB

By Scott J. Cech — July 30, 2007 3 min read
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Since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, test-score improvement among 4th graders in 12 states has fallen off in reading and slowed in math, according to a new study.

The paper also cites National Assessment of Educational Progress scores reflecting a virtual halt to progress in closing racial achievement gaps in reading since the federal law was signed in 2002.

The research, which draws on data from both state tests and the federally administered NAEP, is sure to add fuel to the heated debate over the controversial law as Congress prepares to take up its reauthorization.

“Over the past four years, ‘No Child’ proponents have made very strong claims that this reform is raising student achievement,” said lead author Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the Policy Analysis for California Education research center based at Berkeley and Stanford University. “In fact, after NCLB, earlier progress made by the states actually petered out.”

Mr. Fuller said that pattern emerged from his examination of pre-NCLB state test data as well as results from the long-term NAEP. But he does not suggest that the NCLB law is responsible for the reading-achievement stagnation and math-gain slowdown that he says occurred in the 12 states since the 1990s.

The study, published in the July issue of Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the Washington-based American Educational Research Association, joins a thicket of recent reports on achievement levels since the federal law took effect.

In math, the new study found a rise in achievement since passage of the NCLB law in the 12 states studied: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington state.

Between 2002 and 2006, the study shows, scores on the 12 states’ tests registered an unweighted mean growth rate of 2.4 percentage points in math proficiency. But the researcher noted that growth was slower after 2003 than it had been before passage of the NCLB law.

“Sustained gains in math post-NCLB offer a bright glimmer of hope that federal policy can make a difference inside classrooms,” Mr. Fuller said in an e-mail.

The new research follows a June study by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy that found consistent and significant increases in state-test scores since the legislation became law in January 2002.

Mr. Fuller found fault with the CEP study’s reliance on state tests alone, which he said were less trustworthy gauges of progress than long-range NAEP data—especially on reading.

When asked to comment on Mr. Fuller’s new analysis, CEP President Jack Jennings defended the state tests as “more accurate barometers of whether kids are learning what the state thinks is important.”

Reading Gap Sustained

Katherine McLane, the press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, took issue with Mr. Fuller’s conclusions.

“The fact is that No Child Left Behind is working,” she said. “What the report seems not to account for is that a law that affects tens of thousands of schools all over America can’t be implemented overnight and its effects are not immediate.”

On the achievement gap, Mr. Fuller’s study pointed to national NAEP data showing that in math, African-American 4th graders closed the gap with white students by more than half a grade level between 1992 and 2003. But it highlighted the fact that no further progress was made in 2005. Latino 4th graders, he observed, continued to close the math achievement gap even after passage of the federal law.

In reading, however, Mr. Fuller pointed to national NAEP data showing that black and Latino students’ 4th grade reading proficiency has not appreciably narrowed the gap with white students’ scores under the NCLB law.

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