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THE NEW STATE ACHIEVEMENT GAP: New Education Sector Report Examines How NCLB Waivers Could Impact Student Achievement

“The new state achievement gap, though disturbing to behold, provides encouragement.”

The federal government has a unique opportunity to study what state measures translate into student achievement gains through the issuance and implementation of waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB), finds a recent Education Sector report. The report, The New State Achievement Gap: How Federal Waivers Could Make It Worse—Or Better, looks at the achievement gap among the states—what it calls the “new state achievement gap”—and finds that, in just eight years, the states have created an achievement gap that is about 60 percent of the magnitude of the racial achievement gap, which took two centuries to establish.

“The new state achievement gap, though disturbing to behold, provides encouragement,” the report notes. “It shows that some states are reforming their education systems substantially. It shows that education policy can promote student achievement for large numbers of schools, and that gains are not all about economic circumstance.”

Though NCLB has drawn multitudes of critics, the law—the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—has led to gains in student achievement, the report notes. The report condenses data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as “the nation’s report card,” for reading and math scores in grades four and eight. As shown in the graph below, which is taken from the Education Sector report, student achievement improved for students of all types, including black, Hispanic, and low-income students in the first decade of NCLB (2003–11).

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As shown in the table below, the range of gains in student achievement differed vastly from state to state, with two jurisdictions—Maryland and the District of Columbia—gaining close to 50 points each. Ten states improved by fewer than 10 points, and two states—Iowa and West Virginia—lost ground.

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The report finds that regardless of whether NCLB should be maintained, or whether states should have full jurisdiction over education policy, the states with the highest-quality standards and plans for implementation showed the greatest gains in student achievement. “The lesson for the future is not that it’s time for the states to take the lead in promoting equality,” the report reads. “It’s that the nation should ensure that all states learn from the successes of the few.”

As the federal government continues to issue states waivers from key provisions of NCLB, New State Achievement Gap recommends that it take two important steps to achieve the law’s goal of improving equity in education. First, the federal government should use waiver implementation to study what state measures lead to achievement gains.

Next, the federal government needs to be proactive in holding states accountable for adhering to and advancing states’ proposed waiver plans. The report recommends doing this by insisting on improved achievement on the NAEP or the forthcoming assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. If the federal government takes both of these steps, NCLB waivers can help the nation come closer to understanding how best to achieve the promise of ESEA.

“As Congress looks for a workable new version of ESEA, it could consider allowing states to choose one of two paths for implementation,” the report reads. “One path would follow the research-based practices of the most successful states, over the last decade and the next few years. Another would allow states to chart their own courses, subject to NAEP accountability. In any case, the federal government would recognize that it will never have all the answers, and states would be free to lead the way—so long as all students achieve.”

New State Achievement Gap is available at

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