As Congress reviews federal efforts to boost student performance, new research published in Educational Researcher (ER) reports that progress in raising test scores was stronger before No Child Left Behind was approved in 2002, compared with the four years following enactment of the law.
The article “Gauging Growth: How to Judge No Child Left Behind?” is authored by Bruce Fuller, Joseph Wright, Kathryn Gesicki, and Erin Kang, and is one of four featured works published in the current issue of ER—a peer-reviewed scholarly journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Bruce Fuller, lead author and professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the strong advances in narrowing racial and income-based achievement gaps seen in the 1990s have faded since passage of ‘No Child’. “The slowing of achievement gains, even declines in reading, since 2002 suggests that state-led accountability efforts—well underway by the mid-1990s—packed more of a punch in raising student performance, compared with the flattening-out of scores during the ‘No Child’ era,” he observed.
“We are not suggesting that ‘No Child’ has dampened the earlier progress made by the states,” Fuller said. “But we find no consistent evidence that federal reforms have rekindled the states’ earlier gains. Federal activism may have helped to sustain the buoyancy in children’s math scores at the fourth-grade level, seen throughout the prior decade.”
The researchers pushed beyond earlier studies by tracking progress in both state and federal test scores in 12 diverse states, going back to 1992 in many cases. This approach captured the generally positive effects of maturing state-led accountability programs in both reading and math, gauged by state officials and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Using this longer time span as the baseline, annual changes in student performance generally slowed after 2002, as gauged by state and federal testing agencies, and the earlier narrowing of achievement gaps ground to a halt (NAEP results), according to the study.
The university team focused on 12 states, including Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. They selected these states because they are demographically diverse, geographically dispersed, and were able to provide comparable test score data over time.
Following passage of the ‘No Child’ law, federal reading scores among elementary school students declined in the 12 states tracked by the researchers – after climbing steadily during the 1990s.
The share of fourth-graders proficient in reading, based on federal NAEP results, climbed by one-half a percentage point each year, on average, between the mid-1990s and 2002. But over the four years after the legislation was passed, the share of students deemed proficient declined by about one percent.
The annual rise in the percentage of fourth-graders proficient in mathematics improved slightly in the same 12 states, moving up from 1.6 percent per year before ‘No Child’ was signed to a yearly growth rate of 2.5 percent following enactment of the law. This is the one out of six federal gauges where a post-NCLB gain was observed by the research team, tracking NAEP results.
The researchers simultaneously tracked achievement trends gauged by state and federal testing agencies over the 14-year period. “The correlation between the two barometers was close to zero,” Fuller said. “We worry about the capacity of states to report unbiased test score results over time. But even state results generally confirm the more reliable NAEP pattern showing that progress in raising achievement has largely faded since 2002.”
The authors urged Congress to improve the capacity of states to reliably track the performance of their students over time. “The fundamental principles of transparency and simplicity might guide state and congressional leaders,” Fuller said. “The hurdles defining basic and proficient student performance between federal and state assessments should become more consistent.”
Fuller added that “state and NAEP officials could do more to inform the public on how student demographics are changing, and achievement trends should be interpreted in this context.”
The article is based on studies of accountability policies that Fuller directs with grant support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Noyce Foundation.