Do Schools Pass the Test?
The No Child Left Behind Act has been revolutionary for American education. A combination of reform strategies, it is designed to simultaneously raise achievement levels for all students and close the gap between different types of students. Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, has seen many reports critical of the law, even published a few, but the center's latest report"Answering the Question That Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?"is different. Examining data from all 50 states, the report released last week shows that schools are making progress in reading and math test scores, though it's unclear if NCLB deserves all the credit.
How do we know how well the public schools are performing?
There's controversy over how much No Child Left Behind has raised test scores, but there's little doubt that the reforms under NCLB and those under President Clinton have given us an infinitely better understanding of what is going on in our schools. We have more data all around, which is also leading states to use common measures of data. That's very important. In the past, schools within the same state didn't always use numbers and measures that were comparable with each other.
Has NCLB made students smarter?
NCLB is not a curriculum, so it is misleading to talk about it like that. The law [tells] states to set their own standards and implement accountability measures, not what to teach. We can say that test scores have shown achievement since 2002 in both math and reading. There's more of an increase in math than reading, and more of an increase at the elementary school level than the higher grades.
Those trends [are shown in] other studies as well. The achievement gap between minority students and white students is closing, too. It's slight, but it's moving in the right direction. That is a trend that's also more evident in math than reading. We are doing something right in this country when it comes to math. In reading, we still have a lot of work to do.
What's to stop states from setting low goals and bragging about meeting them?
States have set their own proficiency standards, which can either be reasonable or artificially low, so we used statistical models [in preparing the report] to compensate for that. But states do set their own standards of what students should know. Some states have set ambitious achievement levels ... Massachusetts, California, and Florida, for example, have high standards. Other states have set less than ambitious goals for what their students should be learning.
I hate to mention states by name, but it's clear. Look at any state that has a 90 percent proficiency level with lots of students in poverty. That doesn't happen without either an extraordinary effort to raise the quality of education for all students or setting lower standards. The Department of Education also annually publishes state test scores and national test scores so that they can compare them. It is a matter of public discussion.
How are schools doing?
The public schools are doing better in student achievement, and schools are doing better at narrowing the achievement gap between different groups of studentsalthough the achievement gap is still very substantial. If you have the top students and the bottom students both increasing their scores, then you have achievement without closing the gap. That is happening in many states, but our findings show that the number of states where the achievement gap is closing far exceeds the number of states where the achievement gap is widening. If we want to [close] the achievement gap, our study shows it can be done, but with a lot more effort than we have today.
Will this quiet NCLB's critics?
We don't want to oversell this report. We cannot draw a direct line between these test scores and NCLB. The problem is that there's no control group. With NCLB, every student is affected. We will never be able to measure what education would be like without NCLB. In addition, considerable federal, state, and local reform efforts were underway prior to and since 2002.
But this is in no way a declaration of victory. Other countries in the world are surpassing us in terms of high school completion and in terms of students going on to postsecondary education. We used to lead the world in those two categories. This report should show that there is improvement but we need to accelerate our efforts.
This story appears in the June 18, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.