Study: Low, High Fliers Gain Less Under NCLB

By Debra Viadero — July 16, 2007 4 min read
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A new study of Chicago students suggests that the federal No Child Left Behind Act may indeed be leaving behind students at the far ends of the academic-ability spectrum— the least able students and those who are gifted.

The study by University of Chicago economists Derek A. Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach lends some empirical support to the common perception that schools are focusing on students in the middle—the so-called “bubble kids”—in order to boost scores on the state exams used to determine whether schools are meeting their proficiency targets.

Derek A. Neal

“The whole point is that the details of how you calculate ‘adequate yearly progress’ matter for how teachers will allocate their effort across students,” said Mr. Neal, who presented his paper July 16 at a conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank based here. “Anytime you keep score by looking at the number of kids who pass some proficiency standard, that will shape whom teachers teach.”

But Doug Mesecar, the acting assistant secretary in the office of planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education, said it’s too soon to conclude that the law’s accountability mechanisms aren’t working as they were intended.

“I don’t think it tells enough of the whole story to support the generalizations that were made,” said Mr. Mesecar, who was part of a panel formed by the AEI to discuss the report.“We need to know more, to continue to study, and have more data to do these kinds of analyses, and then, if we do find it is a problem, we need to go in and rectify it.”

‘The Irony’

For their study, the Chicago researchers zeroed in on two time periods during which the 421,000- student school system was changing its testing-and-accountability system. The most recent period was 2002, when the school system, in light of the NCLB legislation, made the Illinois Standards Achievement Test a highstakes exam and set proficiency cutoffs that students would be expected to meet.

The earlier period was 1998, after city school officials tried much the same approach with the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. While the ITBS cutoff points were considered lower, the 1998 accountability system also upped the stakes in a slightly different way by requiring 8th graders who did not pass the tests to attend summer school.

To measure the impact of the new systems, the researchers compared reading and math scores for students in 5th, 6th, or 8th grade in the year, or years, after the changes had taken place with those made by similar cohorts of students a few years earlier. The idea was to see whether the changes in students’ test scores were larger or smaller than what might have been expected had the school system conducted business as usual.

The post-reform pattern, in all cases, was consistent: Students in the middle of the pack made the largest test-score gains, compared with students in previous years. The bottom 20 percent of students made the least progress and, in some cases, even lost ground. The top 10 percent of students made either no academic gains or improvements that were smaller than those of students in the middle, depending on the subject matter.

For the least able students, the situation was only slightly better in the post-1998 reform period. Those students’ scores improved more then, the researchers believe, because the standards had been set at lower levels. They speculated that teachers may be more likely to write off low-achieving students when the likelihood that they will ever meet the achievement target is more distant.

Also, while the NCLB law requires schools to ensure that all students reach proficiency levels by the 2013-14 school year, “there’s no evidence to show that schools are taking that seriously,” Mr. Neal said.

“This is the irony of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations,’ ” he added, quoting a line from President Bush. “Having lower standards is actually beneficial to lowadvantage children.”

The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Teaching to the Middle

Another panelist, Charles Murray, the AEI’s W.H. Brady scholar, said he found Mr. Neal’s finding “persuasive.”

“This strikes, I hope, a major blow to the chest of proficiency counts as a measure of progress in education,” added Mr. Murray, who has published studies suggesting that achievement gaps between children of different races may be immutable. “To ask children to perform at levels at which they are incapable is one of the cruelest things you could ask a child to do.”

A more pointed critique of the study came from Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy at the Washington- based Business Roundtable and a supporter of the NCLB law. Like Mr. Mesecar, she said more years of data are needed to see if the patterns Mr. Neal found in the early years of testing-and-accountability changes are consistent.

“Teaching to the middle is nothing new,” she added. “It’s what most beginning teachers do.”

While the law requires most states to gauge students’ academic progress by counting the number of students who reach proficiency targets, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in recent years began to allow some states and districts to experiment with other accountability models. Currently, for example, nine states have waivers to try so-called “growth models,” which typically give schools credit for gains that students make toward proficiency.

A better variant, Mr. Neal said, might take into account previous achievement differences among students, their peers, and other factors in the same way that golfers are assigned handicaps to account for differences in golf courses or in their ability levels.

“You need some handicapping system that allows you to say that teacher A had a bad year or teacher B had a good year, regardless of whether they taught in New Trier, Ill., or some inner-city school in New Jersey,” he said.


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