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ANSWERING THE QUESTION THAT MATTERS MOST: New Report Finds Higher Scores on Reading and Math Tests Since Enactment of NCLB

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“I’m greatly encouraged by the findings of the Center on Education Policy’s report.”

Student scores on state reading and math tests have improved in the five years since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law, according to a new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP). The report, Answering the Question that Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?, includes verified data from all fifty states—much of which is available for the first time—and investigates achievement trends both before and after the passage of NCLB.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings pointed to the findings of the report as evidence that NCLB should be reauthorized. “I’m greatly encouraged by the findings of the Center on Education Policy’s report,” she said. “This study confirms that No Child Left Behind has struck a chord of success with our nation’s schools and students. … We know the law is working, so now is the time to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and continue the promise of a quality education for all of America’s children.”

The CEP report does not, however, credit NCLB for improvements in student achievement. In fact, it is careful to note that there is a difference between scores going up since the enactment of NCLB and scores increasing because of NCLB, adding that it is “difficult, if not impossible,” to determine the extent to which improvements in test scores can be attributed to NCLB.

“With all of the federal, state, and local reforms that have been implemented simultaneously since 2002, it becomes nearly impossible to sort out which policy or combination of policies is responsible for test score gains, and to what degree,” the report reads.

Because many states had reform efforts underway before NCLB was enacted, CEP needed several years of data to determine whether a state’s pace of improvement had increased or slowed down since NCLB was enacted. Unfortunately, only thirteen states had sufficient data to perform the comparison. Of those states, nine had improved their test results at a greater yearly rate after NCLB was enacted. In the other four states, the pre-NCLB rate of average yearly gain was greater than the post-NCLB rate.

“American educators and students were asked to raise academic achievement, and they have done so,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy. “The weight of evidence indicates that state test scores in reading and mathematics have increased overall since No Child Left Behind was enacted. However, there should be no rush to judgment as there may be many factors contributing to the increased achievement.”

In addition to changes in policy at all levels of government, the report mentions several other factors that could have led to higher scores, including a greater focus on teaching to the test; more lenient tests, scoring or data analyses, and changes in the populations tested.

Elementary-level math is the area in which the most states showed improvement, with thirty-seven of the forty-one states with available data demonstrating moderate-to-large gains, and no states showing declines of that magnitude. At the high school level, CEP finds that more states had test score gains in high school than declines. However, it also notes that more states showed declines in reading and math achievement at the high school level than in the earlier grades. Overall, five states showed declines in both middle school and high school reading, versus only three states in elementary school reading. In math, two states showed declines in middle school while five states showed declines in high school. At the elementary school level, only two states showed a decline in math.

CEP also determined that states have been somewhat successful in closing the achievement gap between white students and their Hispanic and African American classmates. In fact, it finds that fourteen of the thirty-eight states with sufficient data had narrowed gaps in reading scores across all three grade spans (elementary, middle, and high school) while no states had seen the gap widen. In math, twelve states showed gaps narrowing, while only one state showed the gaps widening. CEP reported similar results for Hispanic and low-income students. However, the report also finds that even with narrower achievement gaps, the difference in scores between white students and their minority and low-income classmates often amounts to 20 percentage points or more, suggesting that it will take a “a concerted, long-term effort to close them,” the report reads.

When comparing results on state tests to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), CEP finds that states “show more positive results on their own tests than on NAEP.” It also finds that states with the greatest gains on their own tests were usually not the same states that had the greatest gains on NAEP. However, CEP cautions that NAEP should not be treated as a “gold standard to invalidate state test results,” but rather as an “additional source of information about achievement” because NAEP tests are not aligned with a state’s curriculum as state tests are.

In performing its analysis, CEP found that state data was not easy to access in some states, and, when available, data was often inconsistent, outdated, or incomplete. Among the reasons for incomplete data, the report lists overburdened state departments of education, ongoing corrections in test data, and technical or contractual issues with test contractors. In order to increase transparency in state data, CEP recommends that states post test data in an easy-to-find place on state websites; provide clear information on and caution users about breaks in the comparability of test data due to new tests; and report standard deviations, mean scale scores, numbers of test-takers, and other important information.

The complete report and individual state profiles are available at http://www.cep-dc.org.

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