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HAS STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT INCREASED SINCE 2002?: Yes, Says New Report from the Center on Education Policy, But With Caveats

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“Through NCLB and many state and local efforts, the nation has sought to raise test scores and to narrow the achievement gap. These results show that we are making progress, although much more work needs to be done.”

Reading and math scores on state tests have remained level or increased and achievement gaps have narrowed since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted, according to a recent report by the Center on Education Policy (CEP). However, it is not possible to determine to what degree NCLB was a factor in these changes.

The report, Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?: State Test Score Trends Through 2006–07, examines state test results at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and compares patterns in fourth- and eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP)—also known as the “nation’s report card”—to those found in state test scores.

To perform this comparison, CEP looked at two indicators: the percentage of students that scored above the “proficient” level on the state test, and the “effect size,” which relates to average test scores. A number of states had the necessary data for both indicators, but not all did.

Of the twenty-eight states with sufficient data, half posted moderate-to-large gains in middle school reading scores on both indicators between 2002 and 2007 while six showed at least a slight gain in both indicators. The remaining states did not have enough information for either criterion. In middle school math, twenty-two states showed striking improvements while two improved slightly. In high school math, twelve states had significant gains, and two more had at least slight ones, but the results were not nearly as positive in high school reading. Only eight states made substantial gains while seven posted less-dramatic gains.

In comparison, twenty-one states made moderate-to-large gains in elementary math, and seventeen made this level of improvement in elementary reading.

Findings indicate that achievement gaps between white students and students of color have narrowed since 2002 in many more cases than they have widened or not changed. Of all the gaps analyzed across the among the five groups studied (African American, Latino, Native American, low-income, and white), and in the three grade levels and two subjects, 77 percent of the gaps in percentages of students scoring at proficient on state tests narrowed, as did 68 percent of the gaps concerning effect size.

CEP drew on other research—its own and that of other groups—when considering possible explanations for the trends identified. Many districts devote more time to reading and math, often by reducing time for other subjects, CEP notes. Also mentioned are potential “subtle manipulations in test design” that could have made state tests easier over time, such as changes in the choice of test items. In addition, due to factors such as state and local reforms that occurred at the same time as NCLB-related changes, a causal connection between the federal law and these trends cannot be made.

Jack Jennings, president and CEO of CEP, was positive about the results of the report, but acknowledged that there was still room for improvement. “Through NCLB and many state and local efforts, the nation has sought to raise test scores and to narrow the achievement gap. These results show that we are making progress, although much more work needs to be done,” he said. Noting a similar study CEP did the previous year, he added, “Last year, we sought to determine whether NCLB had resulted in increased student achievement, but discovered that it is not possible to make a causal connection. We know, though, that NCLB required a vast expansion of student testing and we now have a better understanding of whether students, in general, have achieved more.”

The full report is available at http://www.cep-dc.org/.

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