What Do the Latest NAEP Scores Tell Us about NCLB?

By 11/07/2011

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Did the federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), close the education gap?  Now that Congress is talking about reauthorizing NCLB, it struck me that it would be worthwhile to see what the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tell us about the direction the nation has moved in the years since the law was passed–as compared to the trend line in the decade prior to its passage.

At the bottom of this post are the results I reported to a packed house at the Association of Public Policy and Management in Washington, D. C. last Saturday. They show that, for fourth graders, the black-white test score gap had, in the 12 years prior to the passage of NCLB, opened up by 7 points.  The Hispanic-white gap had opened by 5 points.  No wonder there was a demand for an accountability system that required a special look at the learning experiences of minority students.

After the law was enacted, the black-white test-score gap closed by 2 points  and the Hispanic-white gap closed by 1 point.   That is a switch in the trend line of 9 points and 6 points, respectively.  Not as much as we would like, but better than what might have been.

At the 8th grade level, the black-white gap had remained unchanged prior to NCLB, but closed 4 points after its enactment. For Hispanics, the negative trend was 4 points prior to NCLB, and the positive trend 3 points after the law came into being.  That constitutes a direction switch of 7 points.

Notably, none of the reversal in the trend was due to a decline in average white test scores. As can be seen below, average white scores since 2002 are up–quite a bit in math, less so–but still positive–in reading.

I have not presented here a sophisticated study of NCLB’s impact on student performance. But others have, and they, too, report that NCLB’s impact has been, on the whole, modestly positive.

Of course, NCLB can be faulted for the exaggerated rhetoric contained in its title, but that should not prevent us from taking a thoughtful look at the actual NAEP record that has now become available.

When that is done, one must concede that NCLB is not the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But after its passage into law, white, black and Hispanic students all made gains and the widening of the white-minority test score gap was reversed.

Comment on this article
  • Marc Whinery says:

    Is the reason for the closing of the gap that the Blacks and Hispanics are being lifted up, or that the best students, regardless of ethnicity, are being held back and punishment for success is the primary reason for the closing of the gaps?

    From the general trends in the graphs, it looks more like the latter. The greatest failure in education was designed to fail, but accidentally partially succeeded for all the wrong reasons. My opinion is that NCLB was a deliberate sabotage of the education system to position a push for vouchers in his last term that Bush couldn’t pull off because of the lack of political capital. It wasn’t supposed to work, and if it did, it’s just an accident or coincidence.

  • Derek says:

    The gaps only have to do with ethnicity. By not trying to close the achievement gaps, or not “lifting up” the Hispanic and Black populations, we would only be allowing the “best” White students the opportunity to increase in achievement. The trends do not show that we are holding students back. They show that White students are increasing their scores as well as closing the achievement gap between Blacks and Whites, and Hispanics and Whites. If your conspiracy theory were true, there wouldn’t be trends over several years that it is working. I am by no means defending NCLB, just the data presented here.

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