Accountability What the Research Says

What Should Schools Do to Build on 20 Years of NCLB Data?

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 29, 2023 3 min read
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Ivan Duran, now the superintendent of Highline public schools in Washington state, remembers the pressure he felt as an assistant principal at a school serving mostly students of color and English learners when the No Child Left Behind Act first went into effect in 2002.

“For me, it felt like we went from learning to awesome accountability and focusing on kids doing well on tests and these outcomes that really created a lot of stress and started to label a lot of different schools,” Duran recalled. “I really appreciate it that we focus on subgroups ... but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all.

“Over 20 years, you know, as much as we’ve learned and grown in education, we’re still in a place where we’re failing a high number of students ... and we have a lot of work to do to support all of our students so they can find success for their future,” he concluded.

His comment comes close to summing up a new policy analysis by the U.S. Chamber Foundation, which analyzed two decades of research on the No Child Left Behind Act. The report says NCLB’s massive student data and accountability requirements have taught “more about what works in education in the last 20 years than we did in the previous 50 years,” but schools need more supports to put that information to use.

The NCLB law, an update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, operated from 2002-2015. It required annual testing for all students in math and reading in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools for the first time had to disaggregate student achievement data by race and poverty, as well as for students with disabilities or English learners, and they faced increasingly severe interventions if all student groups did not make adequate academic progress each year. (The current iteration of the law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, kept annual testing and other data collection but delegated most responsibility for school accountability to states.)

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The analysis found the law’s mandate for annual testing and disaggregated data focused new attention on students who had previously been “hidden” in schools’ average achievement scores—such as students of color, low-income students, and those with special education or language needs. This led to better and more comparable education information for the public and researchers.

However, the report also found the law’s accountability effects more mixed. Academic achievement rose, particularly in math, for students of color and those in poverty. But there were no overall benefits from the law, or from related initiatives to improve teacher effectiveness or overhaul chronically struggling schools—in part because states and districts implemented improvement practices very differently.

“I think part of our embedded theory of action [for school accountability] is that when localities do something well, that the positive innovation will catch on and spread. I’m more skeptical that that is happening today than I would have been a decade ago,” said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research and co-author of the report, in a briefing. “I don’t see much evidence that those bright spots are spreading, and that people are sort of using the information to say, hey, it looks like it’s working over there. We ought to think about it here, too. “

While the public now has more student achievement data, parents and communities need more information about how to support their schools to improve, said Maya Martin Cadogan, the executive director of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education and a member of the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s task force on NCLB. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce long supported the law.

“I think the way we perceived of accountability and the way a lot of people talked about it was less about support, and more about who was failing,” she said. “It’s so deficit based. In doing that information building, we need to make sure it’s about how we support and buttress schools with interventions and ... funding streams.”

Education accountability, she said, should be “something that is a part of a community being able to hold itself accountable to what it wants to see for its children.”

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