Society and Culture, Education

NAEP Math Results Hold Bad News For NCLB

This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released the 2009 math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The results are bad news for the nation, but even worse for those who want to hold firm in the looming reauthorization debate over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Signed into law in January 2002, NCLB formed the foundation of the Bush administration’s education policy. In the face of bitter resistance from teachers and from critics who thought the law was poorly designed and unrealistic, the Bush administration mounted one consistent defense: math scores on the NAEP, the nation’s report card, were increasing, especially among black and Hispanic students and among the nation’s lowest performing students. While critics questioned whether the post-NCLB gains actually marked an improvement over the pre-NCLB trend, defenders responded that it would take time for NCLB’s reforms to gain traction, and that gains would accelerate over time. This is why the results of the 2009 assessment are so important. How did the nation’s students do in the NCLB era?

At the fourth grade level, student scores were unchanged since 2007. This is unprecedented—the NAEP math assessment has been given eight times since 1990, and this is the first time that scores did not increase. At the eighth grade level, scores continued their trend of slowly increasing, up 2 points since 2007. (Between 2003 and 2005, scores increased by 1 point, and between 2005 and 2007 by 2 points.)

This certainly is not good news for the proponents of NCLB. But if one takes a longer historical view, the news buried in the report is even worse.

The 2003 NAEP math assessment was the first assessment after NCLB’s enactment. The six-year post-NCLB period between 2003 and 2009 can be matched almost exactly in length by the seven years between the 1996 NAEP math test and 2003. The simple comparison of pre- and post-NCLB scores is bad for NCLB as shown in Figures 1 and 2.

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Figure 1 shows the pattern for fourth grade students, graphing the size of the gains overall and for each of the student groups that NCLB was specifically designed to help: low-performing students, black students, and Hispanic students.

In each case, we see that the pre-NCLB gains were greater than the post-NCLB gains, sometimes substantially. For example, among the lowest-performing students in the nation (those scoring in the bottom 10 percent), scores between 1996 and 2003 increased by 15 points. In the NCLB years, they increased by only 5 points. Gains among Hispanic and black students were also far lower during the post-NCLB period.

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Figure 2 shows the results for eighth grade. The gaps between the gains in the pre-NCLB versus post-NCLB period are much smaller than for fourth grade, but for each group the gains were lower after 2003.

There are many possible explanations for this pattern—and unfortunately it’s impossible to determine which one is correct. I believe that one of the most obvious flaws in the law, which contributed substantially toward this disappointing result, was calling for all students to be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, while allowing states to develop their own proficiency standards and assessments. The results, in hindsight, were predictable yet unintended—states had strong incentives to adopt low standards, maybe even lower than they would have adopted without NCLB.

In 2007, when I was commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, we showed that most states were setting their proficiency standards at NAEP’s basic level and some states even lower than that. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called this “lying to children and their parents because states have dumbed down their standards.” The irony here is that NCLB was built on a strong state standards and accountability movement but may have actually served to undermine the movement’s goals. The work of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers on common core state standards is particularly important in rectifying this mistake.

Others offer their own reasons for the failure of NCLB—ranging from underfunding, to maligning teachers, to offering too much choice, to… The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, we have too many possible explanations for far too little data—but the bottom line is clear: NCLB has not worked the way it was intended and the nation is worse off because of it.

The reauthorization of NCLB was going to be contentious to begin with, now these newest math results will serve to intensify the debate.

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