Study Says Student Reading and Math Scores Are Improving

But researchers say it is unclear whether No Child Left Behind policy deserves credit for the gains.

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Since No Child Left Behind took effect about six years ago, most states have found some success narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority children. Student achievement in mathematics and reading has also improved in a majority of states. But it's impossible to say how much credit the federal education reform law deserves. These are the major findings of a new report (.pdf) by the Center on Education Policy, an independent group in Washington, D.C., that analyzes education reforms.

"We cannot draw a causal connection between these results and NCLB," Jack Jennings, president and chief executive officer of the group that conducted the study, said this week. He stressed that the report's findings are good news at a time when confidence in U.S. public schools is shaky. "We are moving in the direction of improving schools," he added.

No Child Left Behind, which requires schools to help every student become proficient in reading and math by 2013-2014, tests students in grades three through eight and once in high school. Schools that fall short of annual performance targets are penalized. The CEP study analyzed test data from all 50 states dating back to 2002, when NCLB took effect. Researchers compared the results with data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test known as "the nation's report card."

The CEP study sought to answer two main questions: whether reading and math achievement has improved and whether achievement gaps between groups of students have narrowed. Researchers concluded that the nation has made progress on both fronts. They found that student achievement in math and reading has improved on both the federal and state assessments, though gains are stronger in elementary and middle school grades than at the high school level. Federal and state results also showed that the achievement gap between white and African-American students has been shrinking.

It is tricky to know which states are doing a better job overall, though. The study shows some states like Tennessee with large numbers of proficient students but, because each state gets to create its own standards, that can mean a state's academic standards are too easy. In general, Florida, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and California are considered to have the most challenging standards.

Critics of the law say its emphasis on reading and math has shortchanged students, who have less time for subjects like history and art. They also question whether students are learning more or simply getting better at taking NCLB tests. Last year, the Center on Education Policy published a similar study. However, researchers this time did not attempt to explain the reasons behind the gains. Jennings said it is impossible to know the extent to which No Child Left Behind has been responsible for the improvement because every state has implemented the law differently. "Students do know more," he said. "But we don't know how much of it is affected by the narrowing of the curriculum."

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