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April-June 2009


No Child Left Behind Fails to Close the Achievement Gap

by Jesse Hahnel

Recently released results from the 2008 administration of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)1  suggest that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is failing to close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students. The results call into question whether NCLB, officially described as “An Act to Close the Achievement Gap,” is having its intended effect.

The NAEP results are timely since Congress is currently in the process of rewriting NCLB2. As it takes a hard look at NCLB, Congress’ interpretation of the NAEP results and its acceptance or rejection of the various theories explaining those results will no doubt influence the reincarnation of NCLB.

The 2008 NAEP Results

The National Assessment of Education Progress is considered to be among the best measures of students’ skills and knowledge. It has been administered periodically since 1969 to a nationally representative sample of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. The latest results suggest that while the reading and math skills of youth have improved since 2004, the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students has not narrowed.

In reading, average scores increased at all three ages since 2004. Moreover, lower performing 9- and 13-year-olds3 made significant gains as compared to 2004. But there was no statistically significant change in the white–black score gap since 2004 for any of the age groups (see figures 1-3). Neither was there a statistically significant change in the white–Hispanic score gap during this period (see figures 4-6).  For all age groups, black and Hispanic students lag behind white students by more than 20 points4.

In mathematics, average scores for 9- and 13-year-olds increased since 2004 while average scores for 17-year-olds did not change significantly. But similar to the reading results, there was no statistically significant change in the white–black or white–Hispanic score gap since 2004 for any of the age groups (see figures 7-12). White students performed better than black and Hispanic students by an average of 23 points5.


What Accounts for NCLB’s Lack of Success?

The 2008 results have prompted an array of theories explaining why NCLB has not been more successful. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that NCLB is not structurally designed to close the achievement gap. The Act requires states (and schools) to raise the average score of select subgroups of students, including whites, blacks, and Hispanics, above a state-set threshold – but the Act does not address the distribution of these scores so long as they are above the threshold. Thus, a state could comply with NCLB by implementing a policy that raised all scores above the threshold while maintaining or widening the achievement gap.

Critics of this theory maintain that such a result is unlikely. They argue that with limited resources states will focus their efforts on raising the scores of the lowest subgroups, rather than raising the scores of all students. The latest NAEP results, showing all subgroups with roughly equal gains, seem to refute this idea. Whether because it is politically unpalatable to reallocate resources towards minority students, because it is practically difficult to refocus resources so that they benefit only minority youth, or because there is still uncertainty over how to effect drastic improvement in the scores of minority youth en masse, the scores of whites, blacks, and Hispanics seem to be rising at roughly the same rate.

A second theory focuses on the unfunded and decentralized nature of NCLB. This theory argues that while the Act holds states and schools accountable for bringing white, black, and Hispanic students above a state-defined achievement threshold, it does not provide nearly enough funding to achieve this result.  Moreover, the Act lacks any guidance on how to raise achievement levels, relying upon a decentralized strategy in which each state, district and school is assumed to know the approach best suited to their locality. Supporters of this theory claim they are being asked to increase scores without extra funds and without being told how such a feat is possible.

A third group of theorists argue that it is impossible to close the achievement gap solely through school-based reform. These critics of NCLB claim that the achievement gap can only be closed through broad based social programs aimed at ensuring all children and their families have adequate health care, nutrition, housing, and mental health services. This group points to successful efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has coupled school-based reform with social programs supporting the children and families in Harlem. Such theorists view changes in the achievement gap as resulting mostly from larger societal trends, such as desegregation in the early 1970’s and changes in black and Hispanic income levels as compared to Whites.

Supporters of NCLB respond to these arguments in two ways.  First, they claim that NCLB encourages states, districts, and schools to develop and implement innovative strategies for raising student achievement, and that some districts and schools have succeeded in closing the achievement gap. They argue that these individual, localized successes would not show up in national datasets such as the NAEP. The results and reproducibility of these programs are being intensely scrutinized, and to the extent they are shown effective they may provide a blueprint for efforts elsewhere.

Second, to the extent these successful programs require additional funding, supporters of NCLB argue that education has always been primarily funded by states, so states should pay to implement these successful strategies more broadly. This could be accomplished either through a serious increase in overall education spending or a significant redistribution of education dollars. Unfortunately, neither option is politically attractive.

How Will the NAEP Results Influence the Future of NCLB?

Congress will certainly take a hard look at the 2008 NAEP results as it grapples with the future of NCLB.  How it chooses to interpret and explain the most recent results, perhaps by subscribing to or rejecting some of the above theories, will no doubt greatly influence NCLB’s makeover.

1 NAEP is a congressionally authorized project of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The test is administered every three or four years, allowing the NCES to track the nation’s "educational achievement" over time. Students were last tested in 2008.
2 No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425, was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002. The Act’s declared purpose is to ensure that "all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments." 20 U.S.C. § 6301 (2002).
3 Lower performing students are those performing in the 10th and 25th percentiles.
4 The reading test is scored on a 0-500 scale. Scaled scores allow for longitudinal analysis.
5 The mathematics test is also scored on a 0-500 scale.

Jesse Hahnel is an attorney and Skadden Fellow at the National Center for Youth Law. He focuses on improving the educational outcomes of foster youth.

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