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Study Questions NCLB Law’s Links to Achievement Gains

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 20, 2006 3 min read
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The No Child Left Behind Act has not accelerated improvements in student achievement or helped narrow the test-score gaps between various groups of students, despite claims by state and federal policymakers that such progress is evident in state and national test results, a report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University contends.

There is little sign that states are on a path toward bringing all students to proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014, as the federal law requires, says the study, released last week.

“Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome” is posted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

“Any change we see in student achievement after NCLB may reflect a continuing trend that occurred before NCLB,” the report asserts. “If we continue the current policy course, academic proficiency is unlikely to improve significantly.”

The report, “Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-Depth Look Into National and State Reading and Math Outcomes,” compares state-assessment data with results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math between 1990 and 2001, or “pre-NCLB,” and 2002 and 2005, or “post-NCLB.”

While student performance on many state assessments has improved over the past several years, significantly in some states, the trend on NAEP has remained relatively stable. Those results, according to the report, indicate that the state assessment systems that form the basis of the accountability measures under the 4½-year-old law have helped paint a “misleading” picture of the progress made in bringing more students to proficiency in the subjects.

“It is possible that the state assessment will continue to give a false impression of progress, shortchanging our children and encouraging more investment into a failed test-driven accountability reform policy,” says the report by Jaekyung Lee, an associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Critical Stance

The study is the latest of several recent analyses of the impact of the No Child Left Behind law on student achievement. The Harvard Civil Rights Project has also released several of its own studies and statements over the past two years critical of how the law is being implemented. Its stance on the law, some observers say, is reflected in the report.

“The Harvard Civil Rights Project has been very skeptical of [the NCLB law]. The [Bush] administration is very supportive of it, and they’re both looking at data in the way that will show their [expected] results,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. “It’s a report to be carefully considered, but one to be viewed with a little bit of skepticism.”

The general findings of the report echo those of other recent studies that have suggested that the rate of improvement in student achievement is inadequate and “that many states’ standards and assessments are not nearly rigorous enough,” according to Ross Wiener, a principal partner at the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates ensuring that poor and minority students meet high academic standards.

Fearing the ‘Cure’

But Mr. Wiener took issue with the tone of the Harvard report, citing its foreword, written by Civil Rights Project director Gary Orfield, as overly critical. “What really concerns me is that the most distinctive aspects of the report seem to be the anger and vitriol,” he said.

Moreover, Mr. Wiener added, the report seems to confuse the goal of the federal law, which requires states to get all students to proficiency in reading and math on state tests in eight years. Those tests tend to gauge proficiency on what is taught or outlined in state standards. Such progress on NAEP, which is based on its own frameworks and is not necessarily aligned with state standards, is not required or expected. The NAEP proficiency standard is considered far more rigorous than that of state tests.

Mr. Lee, the author, said that while he knew the Harvard project had produced critical reports on the federal law, he drew his conclusions from the data.

“I think [the law] is setting the right goal of closing the achievement gap,” he said. “But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. I’m afraid that continuing the current course of policy can make the problem worse.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study Questions NCLB Law’s Links to Achievement Gains

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