The goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is to improve the academic achievement of all students in the United States, including those from historically underperforming groups. So how have public schools fared since enactment of the legislation in 2002? Have they raised student achievement? Have they narrowed achievement gaps?
Yes, on both counts, according to a recent report from the Center on Education Policy titled The Questions That Matter Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind? The center analyzed verified data from all 50 states to determine whether student test scores in reading and math have improved and whether schools have made progress narrowing achievement gaps since the enactment of NCLB. The study looked at achievement trends before and after the passage of NCLB and used two achievement measures: the percentage of students scoring at the proficient level on state tests and effect sizes, a measure based on average test scores.
The study reached several main conclusions:
- In most states with three or more years of comparable test data, student achievement in reading and math has gone up since 2002. More states showed gains in student test scores than showed declines.
- Elementary school math is showing the greatest improvement. Twenty-two of 25 states with comparable data showed moderate to large gains on both the proficiency and effect size measures. No state showed a moderate to large decline.
- Although many states showed decreases in math and reading achievement at the high school level, the number of states with gains for high school students exceeded the number with declines.
- Data show that achievement gaps, although still substantial, are narrowing rather than widening. Of the 38 states with sufficient data on subgroups, 14 have narrowed the gaps in reading between white and black students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Thirteen of 40 states with sufficient data have narrowed the achievement gap in reading between whites and Hispanics at all three levels.
- Nine of the 13 states having sufficient data to determine pre- and post-NCLB trends reported average yearly gains in test scores subsequent to the enactment of NCLB.
- Because schools have implemented multiple programs, policies, and reforms to raise student achievement since 2002, it is difficult, “if not impossible,” to determine whether improvements occurred directly as a result of NCLB.
- Even though NCLB emphasizes public reporting of test data, high-quality data needed for a rigorous evaluation of achievement trends were hard to come by, indicating a need for greater focus on this area.
Limitations of the Study
The report does not credit NCLB for improvements in student achievement, stating, “This report focuses on whether test scores have gone up since the enactment of NCLB. We cannot say to what extent test scores have gone up because of NCLB” (p. 4). The authors cite the difficulty of establishing cause-and-effect relationships between test score trends and specific education programs.
They also point out an important caveat regarding test scores:
With the reauthorization of NCLB underway, people will use test scores to tell the story they want to tell. Everyone interested in NCLB needs to be very careful about reaching conclusions based on flawed or simplistic interpretations of data, or believing claims that go beyond what the data can support. Positive trend lines in test results may indicate that students have learned more, but they may also reflect easier tests, lower cut scores for proficiency, changing rules for testing, or overly narrow teaching to the test. Similarly, flat-line results could signal no change in achievement, or they could mean that the test is not a sensitive measure of the effectiveness of the instruction students are receiving. (p. 9)
The complete report and individual state profiles are available at
Related Reports on the Effects of NCLB
In its From the Capital to the Classroom
series tracking the implementation of No Child Left Behind in its fifth year, the Center on Education Policy offers the following two reports:
- Implementing the No Child Left Behind Teacher Requirements. This study finds that more than half of states and two-thirds of school districts report that No Child Left Behind's “highly qualified” teacher requirements have had little effect on student achievement.
- Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era. The report finds that 62 percent of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English language arts or math, whereas 44 percent of districts reduced time spent on other subjects, lunch, and recess.
Both reports are available at
Gauging Growth: How to Judge No Child Left Behind? Published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), this report indicates that more progress was made in raising test scores before No Child Left Behind than in the four years following enactment of the law. The report is available at
Standards-Based Accountability Under No Child Left Behind: Experiences of Teachers and Administrators in Three States. This report by the Rand Corporation discusses the effects of standards-based accountability policies on schools and points out the potentially negative consequences of a testing culture. The report is available at
State and Local Implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Volume I—Title I School Choice, Supplemental Education Services, and Student Achievement. This report, prepared by the National Longitudinal Study of No Child Left Behind for the U.S. Department of Education, examines the characteristics of students in Title I schools participating in school choice and supplementary education services and the related impact on student achievement. The report is available at www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/implementation/achievementanalysis.pdf.
Amy M.Azzam is Senior Associate Editor, Educational Leadership;
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