No Child Left Behind came along at the midpoint of the achievement trend for students, and it didn’t alter that momentum in any significant way. Most experts agree, however, that the law didn’t hurt either. “White students are not standing in place while minority students gain ground,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Eliminating the achievement gap will require more than just highlighting the disparities, Domenech said. Fully addressing the problem requires the kind of commitment to improving poor performers that many schools can’t or won’t undertake. It would mean longer school days, a longer school year, and more support services.
“What would happen if every kid who was eligible actually got tutoring? What would that look like?” former Secretary Spellings asked. Implicit in her question is an acknowledgement that even though No Child Left Behind starkly outlined the magnitude of the challenge, it couldn’t by itself bring poor and minority children up to grade level.
“If a major component of No Child Left Behind was closing the achievement gaps between subgroups of students, it is hard to claim that it was successful,” said Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
(Mixed results) STUDENT IMPROVEMENT
Scores Have Risen Modestly
The authors of No Child Left Behind envisioned a system in which all students would be given the chance to improve. If provided that opportunity, the reasoning went, all children would improve.
And they have, slowly.
Student reading and math scores have trended upward since 1990. Public schools’ academic performance is at its highest point ever. Math scores, in particular, have shown a small but distinct increase in recent years. That is no small accomplishment, given the budget shortfalls in school districts around the country.
Achievement levels still aren’t anything to crow about, however. The National Assessment for Educational Progress puts math proficiency for fourth-graders at 40 percent. For eighth-graders, it is 35 percent. Reading proficiency is at 34 percent in both grades. Unless you’re grading on a pretty sharp curve, that’s an F. No evidence shows that No Child Left Behind affected student scores in either direction. In reading and math, the law probably didn’t do any harm and quite possibly propelled acceleration where it otherwise might have slowed.
One undisputed bright spot shines. No Child Left Behind requires a Nation’s Report Card every two years from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is widely considered to have the most reliable data on student achievement. (Before the 2002 law, the national assessments were done on an ad hoc basis as time and money permitted.)
The Nation’s Report Card makes for uncomfortable reading because it doesn’t lie. It is a reality check on the halfhearted testing schemes that some states and school districts have used to artificially elevate their students’ scores.
“Yes, we can get a new speedometer. I’m not opposed to that. But will it close the achievement gap in and of itself? Hell, no.” —Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings
Critics say that the real damage from No Child Left Behind comes from curricula too focused on reading and math, coupled with standardized tests that don’t measure comprehension. Under the law, testing became its own game, which further narrowed the focus within math and reading instruction. Not surprisingly, this trend occurred most frequently in the poorest schools that were most in danger of sanctions under the law. Allowing the states to implement No Child Left Behind, a major concession by its congressional authors, has been detrimental to student achievement in some places, because states have lowered their standards so that fewer schools will be labeled as failing.
“When schools with multiple goals are held accountable only for basic skills in math and reading, they rationally shift emphasis away from history, the sciences, the arts, civic participation, character development, physical fitness, and health,” said Richard Rothstein, an education researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. “The more inexpensive the tests, the more they focus on recall rather than reasoning.” Tests that can be electronically graded, for example, don’t measure reasoning ability as well as, say, essay tests.
State implementation also hurt some students because they suddenly had to do less to be considered proficient. The law “inadvertently and perversely created incentives for states to lower standards while giving school systems opportunities to take only token steps to fix failing schools,” said Thomas Toch, an education journalist who cofounded the research group Education Sector.
That outcome is most definitely not what educators or the law’s drafters intended, which makes it difficult to say that No Child Left Behind succeeded in improving students’ performance. “The reason we’re doing all of this is to ‘dramatically’ improve student outcomes. That adverb is so important. It means we can’t be satisfied with a little bit of progress,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.