Since the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted nearly three years ago, almost half the states have seen rising math scores on their state exams for elementary school pupils, a report issued last week says.
Over the same period, it adds, reading scores have improved among 4th and 5th graders in 15 of the 23 states studied, and achievement gaps between minority and white students have begun to shrink in a number of them.
“In the majority of states we looked at, achievement is moving in the right direction,” said Daria Hall, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, the Washington-based research and advocacy group that produced the report.
Coming in the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, the report is already drawing attention—in part because it attributes some of the achievement gains it found to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the centerpiece of President Bush’s plans for improving education.
The study is the second in less than a month to examine trends in state test scores in light of the federal law, although more than a dozen states have not yet published their latest exam results. A smaller study released earlier this month by a University of California, Berkeley, professor paints a contrasting picture of declining or flattening reading achievement in some states.
Some experts say it’s still too soon for any study to judge whether the federal law is producing real academic gains for students.
“A lot of what we’re seeing in these trends are effects of policies in place before No Child Left Behind,” said Daniel M. Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. “So I just think this is jumping the gun a bit.”
The Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged and minority students, backs the federal school improvement law because it aims to hold schools accountable for raising achievement and closing the persistent academic gaps that separate most minority students from their white and Asian-American counterparts.
Ross Wiener, the group’s policy director, said his organization decided to put together its own report on student-performance trends after seeing the analysis issued by Bruce Fuller, the Berkeley researcher, which paints a gloomier portrait of achievement patterns based on just 15 states.
“We saw the conversation accelerating around NCLB, and we felt that enough states had data so that we could begin to have a sound analysis,” Mr. Wiener said.
Unlike Mr. Fuller’s study, which tracked performance trends from the 1990s, the Education Trust researchers chose to concentrate on states that had comparable test results for just the three years following enactment of the federal law.
The numbers, gathered from state education department Web sites, are based on percentages of students that met state targets. In most cases, those were the percentages of students who scored at levels labeled “proficient” or “advanced.” Besides the overall mathematics improvements, the researchers found:
• The percentage of 4th and 5th graders meeting reading targets improved in 23 of the 24 states for which they found trend data. It rose by as much as 15 percentage points in Florida, and as little as 1 percentage point in Maine, Iowa, and Minnesota.
• The achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at the elementary level in 16 of 19 states for reading and in 17 of 21 states in math.
• Between Latino and white students, gaps in reading and math shrank in 13 and 16 states, respectively.
• Achievement gaps between poor and higher-income students decreased in nine states in reading and 10 states in math, among states that had data covering the past few years.
‘Not Terribly Conclusive’
While the news was basically good, said Ms. Hall of the Education Trust, “this progress is happening too slowly to ensure that all kids meet state standards by 2014” as required by the federal law.
She and Mr. Wiener suggested that the federal government should speed up academic progress by holding schools more accountable for providing high-quality teachers and strictly defining how states should keep track of graduation rates.
The authors also found that, in a handful of states such as Arizona, achievement gaps narrowed partly because scores declined for white students. “That’s not the kind of progress we’re looking for,” Ms. Hall said.
Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said the report, though premature, still offers some promising data.
“It’s not terribly conclusive but, on the other hand, it does answer the first-order question: Does it look like something is happening out there? It does,” he said.
In the weeks ahead, the authors said they hope to complete similar analyses of state-level performance trends for middle and high school students.