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NCLB Found to Raise Scores Across Spectrum

By Sean Cavanagh — June 17, 2009 4 min read
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Since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted, critics have questioned whether the law’s mandate to bring students to “proficiency” has resulted in schools ignoring the needs of the nation’s highest- and lowest-achieving students.

A new study, released today, suggests those fears have not become reality.

The 50-state analysis found that test scores for both “advanced” and “basic” students rose in nearly three-quarters of assessments studied across states and grade levels, a level of progress only slightly lower than that of students reaching proficiency.

The study sought to examine a story line put forward in recent years—namely, that schools are not focusing on the highest- or lowest-scoring students, but rather on middle achievers, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, which produced the report.

While the progress of high and low achievers could be stagnating in individual instances or schools, the study indicates that on average, those students are advancing, said Mr. Jennings, of the center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“We found no strong evidence that NCLB’S focus on proficiency is shortchanging students at the advanced or basic levels,” the report says. Test scores “provide little evidence that NCLB is having such an effect.”

The study examines trend lines in state reading and math scores at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, beginning in 2002, the year former President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law. It requires states to make yearly progress in moving students toward a specific target: proficiency. All students are to reach that mark by 2014.

Of 300 possible test-score trend lines in reading and math on state exams, the center had data to evaluate 243 of them. Students showed gains in reaching proficiency 83 percent of the time, while 15 percent declined, and the rest did not change significantly.

State scores of students at the basic level, meanwhile, rose 73 percent of the time, and declined in 18 percent of cases. And at the advanced level, 71 percent of the trend lines showed an increase, while 23 percent declined.

Math Progress More Modest

While the gains were “more numerous and larger” at the proficient than at the basic and advanced levels, those differences are attributable partly to a statistical phenomenon caused by more students being included within the proficient group, the CEP says. The study is one of several to be released by the center in the coming months that will examine trends in student performance the No Child Left Behind Act went into effect.

States set their proficiency standards all over the map, research shows, raising questions about the legitimacy of their claims of student progress. States have similarly divergent policies in setting basic and advanced targets, Mr. Jennings said. (“States Tests, NAEP, Often a Mismatch,” June 13, 2007.)

Joann P. DiGennaro, of the president of the Center for Excellence in Education, in McLean, Va., said she doubted whether many state tests could adequately gauge the progress of top-performing students. As a result, she questioned whether the study could provide much information on whether high-achievers are making progress or being challenged in math and language arts classes.

At the same time, Ms. DiGennaro, whose organization advocates increased opportunities for high achievers, said she agreed with the report’s conclusion that the landmark federal law has not measurably affected elite students.

“Before No Child Left Behind, we weren’t doing anything for high achievers,” Ms. DiGennaro said. “It’s not the causal issue in [their] stagnation.”

The CEP study also shows trends that mirror recent results on the prominent federally administered test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress: Math scores rose more than reading results, and elementary and middle schoolers’ progress in math and reading was greater than that at the high school level.

While the report offers no definite explanation for those trends, it says that math skills tend to be “more discrete” and based on rules that can be “systematically taught to students” and may be easier to test than reading. In addition, the proportion of proficient students was lower in math, leaving more room for growth in that subject, the authors explain.

At the high school level, some students may not be motivated to take high school tests if they do not count toward graduation requirements—as is the case in many states, the report says. Yet the results also point to the need to focus more on the academic needs of older students, Mr. Jennings said.

Congress has begun preliminary work on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Jennings said the results are in one sense encouraging in that they suggest the federal government and state officials can work cooperatively to demand more of students of different abilities.

“Teachers have responded” to NCLB’s mandates, Mr. Jennings said. “They have raised test scores. It clearly shows, as a nation, we can improve the schools, when we agree on what we want to get out of them.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as NCLB Found to Raise Scores Across Spectrum

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