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Study Finds NCLB Law Lifted Math Scores

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 20, 2009 4 min read

The No Child Left Behind Act has significantly boosted mathematics achievement, but no evidence exists that it has done the same for reading, concludes a recent study.

Brian A. Jacob, a professor of economics and education policy at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and Thomas Dee, a professor of economics at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., examined the effects of the federal education legislation on scores for 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They found large increases in math for 4th graders and moderate ones in that subject for 8th graders. The gains in math were concentrated among white and Hispanic students, students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches, and students at all levels of performance.

But the researchers did not find evidence of a similar impact on reading scores.

The No Child Left Behind law is the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress is long overdue in reauthorizing. It was considered to be the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s domestic policy. Significant changes are expected to be made to the law.

The study, released Nov. 19, is unusual among research examining the impact of the NCLB law, Mr. Jacob said in an interview, because it includes a “credible control group” and a treatment group of states. The sample size is about 40 states and varies between math and reading.

In the control group are states that the researchers determined had “NCLB-like” accountability systems before the law took effect in 2002. Prior to its passage, such states had to be testing students, reporting the data at the school level, and using sanctions, in order to be included in the control group, Mr. Jacob explained. Illinois, North Carolina, and Texas are among the states grouped into that category.

The treatment group includes states that were testing, and perhaps were reporting data at the school level, but did not have sanctions in place, he said. Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were among those put in the treatment group.

The findings show that “student achievement improved a lot more after 2002 in these treatment states than in the control states,” Mr. Jacob said. “NCLB was a larger change [for the treatment states]. It required them to do a lot more. It really was a new policy for them.”

The study confirms what Andy Smarick, who was a deputy assistant secretary of education for President George W. Bush, has been seeing with analyses of scores on state tests.

“I’d call [the math results] modest gains, not as large as many of us would have hoped to see, but still consistent, measurable, and significant,” said Mr. Smarick, now a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. That disadvantaged students in particular increased their scores in math shows that the NCLB law has made progress in reaching its goal of closing the achievement gap, he said.

Mr. Smarick said the study’s conclusion about reading is also consistent with what he’s seen in other studies. “It’s tough to make gains [in reading] in higher grades,” he said.

Grouping Questioned

Some researchers took issue with the Michigan-Swarthmore findings because they said states cannot easily be categorized into groups based on whether they had accountability systems like those required under NCLB before its passage.

“Some have long traditions of accountability, and others have had accountability for 15 minutes,” said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the Washington-based American Educational Research Association. States have different demographics and cultures that could affect educational gains, he said.

Iowa is a state that didn’t have an NCLB-like accountability system before 2002 but had a strong record of educational achievement, he noted. “If you just put it in the low-accountability group, you’re missing a great deal of information about a state,” he said.

“It’s hard to isolate one cause and say that’s it, because there is so much else going on,” said education historian Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, about the finding that the NCLB law boosted math scores. She pointed out that the rate of students’ gains on NAEP actually slowed after implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. Ravitch said she was suspicious about the validity of the researchers’ control and treatment categories. “I’d be willing to bet every one of those states [in the treatment group] had an accountability system in place,” she said. Most states, said Ms. Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education from 1991 to 1993, had adopted plans and applied in 1994 for Goals 2000 money, another type of federally supported education reform.

Mr. Smarick acknowledged that critics’ questioning of the categories used in the study is fair because different states had “vastly different” accountability systems before the NCLB law was implemented. Nevertheless, he said, the approach of creating the two categories is “clever and respectable.”

“What [the study’s authors] are trying to do,” he said, “is isolate states that didn’t have tough accountability systems, and thanks to NCLB, implemented them.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as Study Finds NCLB Law Lifted Math Scores, But Not Reading

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