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Shock Treatment: Scores Jumped, Then Stalled, After NCLB

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The No Child Left Behind Act is taking quite a public beating from critics on all sides these days, but a new paper argues that the law contributed to a substantial increase in students' math skills in the years after it took hold.

The problem: After the initial shock of the law's "accountability" mechanisms wore off, there was a leveling-off of student gains—which suggests that bold new education policies are needed to unleash a fresh wave of academic progress, author Mark Schneider contends.

The paper, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, speaks to some of the big questions swirling around the attempted, long-stalled reauthorization of the law, as well as to other major, multi-state policy efforts to drive educational improvements at a national scale.

It may also have a few implications for presidential politics.

Schneider is a political scientist and a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics who served during George W. Bush's administration, which has not stopped him from taking issue with NCLB in the past. In his new paper, he notes that from just before the time when NCLB was signed into law—2002—through around 2005, there was a "sharp uptick" in math performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, particularly among 4th graders. There were also big gains among black and Hispanic students. Eighth-grade math scores showed simliar, though less striking improvements.

While researchers can't judge cause-and-effect from NAEP scores, Schneider believes the student progress is partly attributable to the shock of NCLB's testing-and-sanction policies coming to states and schools. He draws an analogy to the research of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and paleontologist Niles Eldredge, who said that change to complex systems is often brought about by sudden, radical transformation, rather than incremental change. One classic example from science is the meteor that scientists believe struck the earth ages ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and changing the climate in a way that was favorable to mammals.

NCLB, Schneider said, was a meteor of its own. But as was the case in nature, after the law hit, an "equilibrium" set in, and the NCLB law's effect wore off, Schneider contends. After a few years of steady gains, driven in part by the law's policies, national NAEP math scores began to stagnate around 2005, he says.

The same test score boom and bust, he acknowledges, was not evident in grade 4 and 8 reading scores, which have remained relatively stagnant over time. Some researchers have suggested that the foundation for reading skill is more dependent on factors outside school than are math skills, Schneider explains—which might have lessened the impact of policies like NCLB.

Why does any of this matter for Campaign 2012?

Schneider, who is now a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, was initially asked by Fordham to look at Texas Gov. Rick Perry's record on education, which has come under criticism from the Obama administration and others. Schneider found that post-2000, after Perry became governor, math gains slowed and then stagnated, which would seem to give fodder to the Republican presidential candidate's detractors.

But Schneider sees larger forces at work. The Lone Star state was an early leader in adopting a tough accountability system under then-Gov. Bush, Perry's predecessor. (That state law later served as a blueprint for NCLB.) As a result, Texas was ahead of the curve in making test-score gains in the 1990s—but that meant it also reached the NCLB-style accountability plateau when Perry became governor, Schneider says.

And so what does the NCLB plateau mean for U.S. schools, in the long term?

Now that the initial effect of the law has worn off, the United States needs a "new shock" to galvanize another round of school progress, Schneider argues. "Scanning the heavens for the next meteor," he says, the most likely candidates are the Common Core standards, and efforts to create new measures of teacher performance.

"If the United States is lucky, one or both of these shocks will produce yet another major uptick in math scores," he writes. "If we are really lucky, these shocks will produce upticks in reading and other subject areas as well."

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