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Since NCLB Law, Test Scores on Rise

By Sean Cavanagh — June 24, 2008 6 min read
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Student achievement in mathematics and reading has risen on state tests, and the gap between white and minority children has narrowed since the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, though gains were stronger in elementary and middle schools than at the high school level, according to a new study.

The study, released today, found that the majority of states evaluated posted “moderate-to-large” gains in both subjects in 4th grade. In 8th grade math, most states fared well, though in reading the increases were not as great. The study looked at data from all 50 states from 2002 to 2007.

The study was generated by the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. It follows up on a similar report released last year, and it tries to expand on that earlier analysis by supplementing it with another year of test data and more in-depth study of trends in different areas, particularly the progress of minority students.

The study addresses “a very broad question, and it provides a very broad answer,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the center, in an interview.

“Student achievement is increasing, and the achievement gap is narrowing,” Mr. Jennings said. Overall, “it’s good news,” he said of the results.

The state gains in reading and math were not as strong when compared with states’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally administered test that judges states on a common scale. That gap was most pronounced in 8th grade reading. NAEP, known as the “nation’s report card,” is used by researchers and policymakers as the standard for measuring student achievement, independent of various state testing policies and achievement levels.

But Mr. Jennings said that, on the whole, the more modest state NAEP scores did not undermine the gains reflected in individual states’ assessments. NAEP scores still “confirm the general trend,” he said.

Is Law Behind Rise?

The authors of the study say it is impossible through their study to answer the oft-asked question among policymakers whether the NCLB law has on its own produced gains or decreases in student learning. Too many factors, particularly state and local school policies, skew that connection, they say. Yet the study seems certain to stoke debates among researchers, policymakers, parents, and others over the 6 1/2-year-old law’s impact.

President Bush, who signed the bipartisan measure into law in 2002, has steadfastly promoted it as having produced student academic gains, despite criticism from parents, teachers, and others who say the measure has produced a test-driven curriculum overly focused on math and reading. Both of the presumed nominees in this year’s presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have voiced general support for the law, while also vowing to seek changes that will make it fairer to schools. (“Candidates at Odds Over K-12,” June 11, 2008.)

The study examines student achievement on the basis of the percentage of students scoring at the “proficient” level on state-administered tests in reading and math. States are required to give exams in those subjects annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. As a second indicator, the study looks at the “effect size,” basically the differences between test results, using a common measurement. The study also compared trends on the individual state tests with the state-by-state results of NAEP.

The center was advised in designing and implementing the study by a team of outside researchers who have studied testing policy and education research: Laura Hamilton of the RAND Corp.; Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution; Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies, the American Enterprise Institute; Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder; and W. James Popham, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. Those panelists include both supporters and critics of the No Child Left Behind Act. (“State Tests Show Gains Since NCLB,” June 6, 2007.)

The center’s researchers say they vetted test data from 2002 to 2007 and omitted results from individual states that had significantly changed their testing policies during that time. Only trends of state testing data lasting at least three years were analyzed, and subgroups that were so small that they might have skewed the results, or which had changed significantly in size, were not counted.

Elementary School Gains

Overall, in both reading and math, there were 133 categories of students making moderate-to-large gains on their state tests, and only 10 cases of students making moderate-to-large drops in achievement.

In math, 21 of 27 states with enough test data to be analyzed made moderate-to-large gains at the elementary level, as judged by the two indicators used in the study, proficiency and effect size. Only one state showed a decline in both indicators at the elementary level.

In middle school math, 22 of 27 states made moderate-to-large increases in both indicators, while only two of them had decreases in either indicator. Among high school students, 12 of 26 states produced moderate-to-large math increases, and six states saw a decrease on at least one indicator in that subject.

In elementary reading, 17 of 28 states produced moderate-to-large gains on both indicators, and three states showed a decline in one category, effect sizes. Fourteen of 28 states made moderate-to-large gains on the two indicators at the middle school level, while six states had scores that stayed flat or declined by one indicator.

At the high school level, of 27 states evaluated, just eight states made moderate-to-large gains in two indicators, seven states made at least slight gains on both, and five states saw either a moderate-to-large or slight decline in reading in both categories.

The study compared state percentages of “proficient” students against the NAEP in both reading and math in 134 total categories. It found that gains occurred on both assessments in 107 categories, and declined in both cases in just two instances. In the 25 other categories, NAEP and state test scores diverged.

While he found that the overall gains in NAEP and state tests mirrored each other, Mr. Jennings speculated that states’ weaker scores on the national assessment could be partly the result of students and school officials not seeing those tests as being as important as state exams, which carry high stakes for schools under the NCLB law. He also noted that some states’ curricula are more aligned to the content on NAEP tests than others are.

State standards for judging student “proficiency” on tests vary greatly. A federal study last year found wide discrepancies in the proficiency levels states use on their individual assessments, when judged against the NAEP, leading observers to question state claims of academic progress. (“State Tests, NAEP Often a Mismatch,” June 16, 2007.)

‘Hypersensitive’ to Low-Achievers?

The Center on Education Policy study also found a closing of the gap between whites and minority subgroups. For instance, in elementary reading, the gap between African-American and white students narrowed in 13 states in both indicators and widened on both indicators in only one state, the analysis found.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, was skeptical that the racial-achievement gap shrunk as reported by the states. He said states want to recognize the gains of low-achieving students, and tend to be “hypersensitive” to relatively small test-score increases as a result, in ways that NAEP is not.

Even so, Mr. Fuller said he was encouraged by the overall state gains in reading and math.

That view was shared by Ross Wiener, the vice president for programs and policy at the Washington-based Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates high standards for disadvantaged students. He attributed the state advances to a host of education improvements made at the federal, state, and local levels, many of which began before the passage of the NCLB law.

Improvements have “been brought about by the standards and accountability movement,” Mr. Wiener said. “No Child Left Behind has been a part of that, but there’s no way to tease that [effect] out.”

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