Research Roundup

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2009

Two recent reports add to the mounting evidence that the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) is failing on nearly every level, and another finds serious harm done to students by California’s exit exam. The Civil Rights Project and Bill Mathis analyze NCLB, while Sean Reardon evaluates California.

NCLB is not achieving its goals and may in fact be degrading education. That’s the conclusion of the latest in a series of 13 reports from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly the Harvard Civil Rights Project). As the report’s foreword put it, “We have bet the future of federal education policy on a theory of accountability that does not work.”

Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good but Doesn’t Work—And Why We Keep on Doing It Anyway outlines three ways in which the law is failing. First, its high-stakes accountability system is not driving improvements in student achievement or school quality. Second, it fails to identify which schools really need improvement, while identifying many more schools than states have the capacity to help improve. And third, educators view the law as unrealistic, misguided and counterproductive and are therefore not motivated to implement it.

Authors Gail Sunderman and Heinrich Mintrop find the law incompatible with what is known about creating lasting school reforms. They say NCLB has resulted in an “educational system stuck in low-level intellectual work.” They recommend four principles for revising the law, including that the system should reflect “the complexity of the task by allowing multiple measures, more flexibility and local options.”


A policy brief by Vermont superintendent and researcher William J. Mathis looks at NCLB’s school restructuring alternatives and finds them severely lacking. NCLB's Ultimate Restructuring Alternatives: Do They Improve the Quality of Education? concludes, “ there is little or no evidence to suggest that any of these options delivers the promised improvements in academic achievement.” NCLB provides five options for intervention in schools that fail to make mandated improvements for six consecutive years. These include takeover of the school by the state; turning the school’s management over to a private firm; shutting down and reopening as a charter school; or reconstitution of the school by replacing some or all administrators, staff, or faculty. A fifth option provided under the law endorses "any other major restructuring of a school's governance arrangement."

Among the report’s findings are:

  • Takeovers of “failing” schools by the state or by private management firms are rare. When they do happen, there is no evidence that improvement, measured by standardized test scores, has occurred.
  • The charter option is also rarely used and also fails to spur improvements “when controlling for demographic factors.”

Reconstitution by replacing school staffs is also infrequent and also fails to improve school outcomes.

A study by Sean Reardon, Associate Professor of Education at Stanford University, finds graduation rates for low-achieving minority students and girls have fallen nearly 20 percentage points since California implemented high school exit exams. The California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) has not improved student achievement and has sharply increased inequities. Contradicting a common rationale for high-stakes testing, the researchers find no evidence that the exam motivates low achievers to work harder in order to earn a diploma.

Reardon and his colleagues say differences in prior achievement, school quality and racial or gender bias in test items did not cause the inequitable results. Instead, they point to Professor Claude Steele’s theory of “stereotype threat” as the probable cause for the impact. When minorities and girls take the CAHSEE, they "experience stress from two sources: fear of failing the test and concern about proving a negative stereotype," both of which may depress their scores, the study says.

The California legislature is considering a bill to defer the graduation test requirement for three years (see state roundup, this issue).