NCLB Not Closing Test Score Gaps

K-12 Testing

A new report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project (HCRP) compares results on state and national tests to see whether the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is improving achievement and narrowing gaps, as claimed by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and others. After an extensive analysis of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state tests, the report concluded that NCLB has not caused achievement to improve significantly, nor have gaps been narrowed. This finding reinforces an earlier FairTest analysis of NAEP results.


Author Jaekyung Lee analyzed results on NAEP both before and after NCLB and compared these with results on state tests. The researchers found that states have claimed improvement in state assessments of math and English, but NAEP results do not show similar growth. Based on trends on state math and English results, the report said, states will not reach NCLB's goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Despite NCLB's professed focus on eliminating achievement gaps between whites and minorities, HCRP found no evidence of gaps narrowing under NCLB. Lee predicted that by 2014, "less than 25 percent of poor and Black students will achieve NAEP proficiency in reading, and less than 50 percent will achieve proficiency in math."


A 2005 FairTest analysis of NAEP results similarly found that since 1999, NAEP reading scores showed modest gains for nine-year-olds, but have been flat for 13-year-olds (see Examiner, Fall 2005) In addition, despite nearly 30 years of test-based graduation requirements in many states, NAEP grade 12 score trends in reading and math have been flat or declining for all major demographic groups. NAEP's trial urban assessment reported that limited gains in grade four math in urban districts were not matched at grade eight, suggesting that urban, largely poor and minority students have not benefited from test-based school "reform."


A study by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) is also consistent with the HCRP and FairTest findings. PACE highlighted discrepancies between results on state tests and NAEP in 12 states. A Los Angeles Times report quoted Bruce Fuller, education professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the report's lead author, expressing skepticism that NCLB is working as intended. Since NCLB, Fuller said, "a lot of governors and a lot of state school chiefs have celebrated and claimed significant progress in terms of reading and math achievement." But he added, "in many cases - including in California - state officials seem to be exaggerating progress that has been made in children's basic reading skills."


Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, called the HCRP report's findings "depressing…given the tremendous amount of pressure schools have been under and the damage that a lot of high poverty racial schools have undergone by being declared as failing schools." He added, "We have not focused on the kinds of serious long-term reforms that can actually produce gains and narrow the huge gaps in opportunity and achievement for minority students."


Orfield noted that earlier efforts to close gaps were more successful than NCLB, even though they were often derided by conservative commentators as failed social experiments. In his introduction to the report, Orfield cites "enormous progress" in closing racial achievement gaps in the 1970s and 1980s, when investments in social and educational policies were followed by a reduction of the black-white math gap by 50 percent. When in the 1990s public policymakers turned away from these efforts and toward the standards- and test-based reforms that currently hold sway, racial gaps in NAEP scores began to widen again. Orfield wrote, "This implies that further progress in closing the gap can be made through social and educational policies."


Among the report's major findings:

  • Since NCLB, the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in NAEP reading and math scores have not closed significantly and will not close by 2014 if current trends continue.
  • According to NAEP results, reading achievement has been flat, while math achievement has grown at the same pace before and after NCLB (contrary to Secretary Spellings' claims of unprecedented jumps in reading and math achievement as a result of NCLB). Grade 4 math showed a brief improvement right after NCLB, then resumed its pre-NCLB growth rate. These trends make it extremely unlikely that states will meet the 100 percent proficiency target by 2014.
  • NCLB's attempt to build on supposed successes of early adopters of test-driven accountability (such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina) has not succeeded. These "first generation" states have not improved on their earlier results, nor have "successes" been transferred to "second generation" states who have adopted these policies under NCLB. Neither first nor second generation states have significantly narrowed gaps in NAEP math and reading scores.
  • NCLB's chosen accountability tool, state testing, is more misleading than informative, since state test results tend to inflate proficiency levels and gains and "deflate racial and social achievement gaps."