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Study Suggests NCLB Impact on NAEP Scores

If you think the latest round of NAEP reading results are an epitaph for the No Child Left Behind law, think again, say a group of researchers from Northwestern University.

Researchers Manyee Wong, Thomas D. Cook, and Peter M. Steiner base their conclusions on an examination of 4th grade reading and 4th and 8th grade math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The research team analyzed scores from 1990 to 2009, with an eye toward comparing rates of learning growth over that time for public schools with the gains made in higher-scoring Catholic schools.

Why Catholic schools? The reasoning is that Catholic schools, because they are not subject to the sanctions imposed under the law, would serve as a sort of control group. (A small percentage of Catholic schools, however, did take part in the federal Reading First program.)

So here's what happened: In both 4th and 8th grade math, the scores jumped up a bit for the public school students around 2002, just when the law took effect, and then grew at a slightly steeper rate thereafter. The rate of achievement growth in the Catholic schools, on the other hand, either stagnated, dropped, or grew at the same pace from 2002 on. The positive post-NCLB trend was especially pronounced in 4th grade math, where the public school students had halved the gap between them and their Catholic school counterparts by 2008.

In reading, however, the advent of NCLB did not seem to step up the pace of improvement—at least not in a statistically significant way.

If you, like me, were wondering how a law passed in 2001 could possibly have an effect on 2002 test scores, the researchers' explanation is that states were already ratcheting up their school accountability efforts in anticipation of the law.

But the researchers didn't stop there. They also took a look at long-term data from state exams across the nation, comparing the results for each state to how well that state's students did on NAEP tests in the same subject. Based on that analysis, they sorted states into three groups—those with tough standards, those with moderate achievement thresholds, and those where the bar was set lower. The states that experienced the greatest gains on NAEP, post-NCLB, were those with the most rigorous standards, which would presumably be the states with the highest numbers of schools getting those nasty failing labels under the law.

The researchers warn that the findings, which they have presented on Capitol Hill and in research conferences over the past few months, do not amount to a comprehensive evaluation of NCLB. But, given the impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—a.k.a. NCLB—it's something to think about. Look for the full study on the Web site for Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research.

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