One of the most sweeping education reforms enacted in decades was the bipartisan implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) during the Bush administration in 2002. Now, after eight years, the Center on Education Policy (CEP), an independent advocate for public schools, has released a report analyzing the latest reading and mathematics achievement trends as impacted by NCLB.
The bottom line in the CEP report is that minority students are still being significantly “left behind” – with some minorities faring worse than others. States, school districts and schools haven’t been making much headway, it seems, in closing the achievement gap that still exists for students depending upon their race, ethnicity, income and gender.
The good news in the report is that, generally, student achievement performances have improved on standardized tests. However, there is still a large divide between White and non- White student groups. What’s more, at the current rate of improvement and progress by states and districts, the report estimates it will take “many years” to achieve performance parity.
CEP bases its conclusions on State Test Score Trends Through 2008-09, Part 2: Slow and Uneven Progress in Narrowing Gaps, an examination of the results from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) tests and state tests for grades four, eight and high school. The tests score reading and mathematics skills and separates the results by student race, ethnicity, income and gender from 2002 through 2009.
“This report shows that states can raise student achievement and can narrow achievement gaps,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of CEP. “But it also makes clear that we need to do more. Gaps aren’t narrowing fast enough. This is not fair for the students who are behind, and it’s not good for the country.”
Jennings bases his gloomy assertion on major conclusions drawn from this study. The first is that student achievement gaps are wide and stubbornly resistant to change. And those kinds of gaps were not limited to racial or ethnic gaps as compared to White students. For instance, the gap between White and African- American students was as much as 20 to 30 points in many states. The gap between Hispanic student achievement and White student achievement was about 15 to 20 points in most instances. But the striking gap across the board was the one between students from low-income families and those who were not low-income. In that instance, the achievement gap was 25 points or more. Moreover, the gender gap remains an issue in all areas of education. In 2009, girls did better than boys in reading achievement in all states and the District of Columbia. In some states, the gap was 10 points or more. And gender gaps seem more resistant to narrowing than other gaps. Jennings concludes, “We should encourage girls to achieve at high levels, but we must pay more attention to why boys don’t do better.”
Disturbing for Jennings is the lack of progress made in closing the achievement gap for Native Americans. Not only has the narrowing of the gap between Native Americans and White students been slow, it may have actually worsened in some instances. “These results for Native American students are distressing,” Jennings says. “Little progress is being made, and there is even some backsliding in narrowing the achievement gap.”
Ironically, another conclusion of the report is that NCLB has worked well for the students who need it the least. Based on the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats, NCLB did not single out students based on race, ethnicity and income levels. The protocols put in place to improve achievement were applied to all student groups. So while African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Native American (as well as lowincome) boys and girls made gains in reading and math in two-thirds or more of the states reporting, so did White students. When all major student groups make gains, the gap between the groups persists. And the gains were not proportional. Students who routinely achieved well had a tendency to take to NCLB initiatives quicker and better than the very groups that these initiatives targeted. In some ways, this makes the gains by African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Native American and White (as well as low-income) boys and girls in state reading and math tests in two-thirds or more of the states even more impressive.
“The achievement gap has been a matter of national attention for at least 10 years. And while state test scores are going up, they are going up for all students. That’s why gaps are not closing and remain a major national challenge,” said Jennings. “We have to do more to speed up the progress, especially for Native American students, poor students and boys in reading.”
The report concluded that there is also a difference between test groups in average test scores and percentages deemed proficient. One of the big complaints about NCLB when it was first enacted was that each state was allowed to institute its own testing and standards for proficiency. These standards and methods differ widely from state to state. So it is not surprising that there is sometimes a conflict between what the average test scores and the percentages proficient test scores show. In its study, CEP considers national average test scores a more accurate measure of gap changes among key demographic groups. The average test scores also give a more pessimistic view of the narrowing of the achievement gap among minority and low income students. For example, in reading and math, at all grade levels tested, the gap between low-income students and non-low-income students shrank 57 percent using average scores, compared with 72 percent, using the percentages proficient standard of measure.
The good news for Hispanics is that, on average, the Hispanic vs. White student gap in percentages proficient has narrowed at a higher rate than gaps for other groups. Also, in some instances, the African-American vs. White student gap has also narrowed at a faster rate.
Overall, the Hispanic vs. White student gap was 15 to 20 percentage points. “These gaps are still too large, but the faster rate of change in the Latino-White gap shows that progress can be made,” Jennings said. But progress is projected to be agonizingly slow even for groups like Hispanics that are making the fastest progress.
CEP projects that at the current rates of progress it would take as much as one or two decades or more to statistically tighten or close most gaps. For example, considering high school math, closing a gap of 15 percentage points between Hispanic and White students would take 12.5 years if the current rate of progress prevailed.
The CEP report illustrates the challenges of closing the gaps, using Florida and Pennsylvania as examples. In Florida, the gap between African-American and White students in percentages proficient has narrowed at an average rate of just under one point annually since 2002. And the gap was 25 percent in 2009. If Florida’s rate persisted, it would take 28 years for African- Americans to achieve percentages proficient parity with White students. The outlook in Pennsylvania for Hispanics is a bit brighter. There, the gap between Hispanic and White students has shrunk an average rate of 1.5 percentage points annually since 2002. In 2009, this gap stood at 25 percent.
As early as 2007, when a report titled The Proficiency Illusion by John Cronin, Michael Dahlin, Deborah Adkins and Gage Kingsbury of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) was published, education researchers were on alert about the inherent problems of NCLB’s reliance on individual state proficiency standards to measure the act’s success. The report, sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, cast a critical eye on the implementation of NCLB that is relevant in evaluating this new CEP report. The Proficiency Illusion’s major conclusions included the assertion that each state’s test varies widely in its difficulty level. The report claimed that as of 2006, Colorado, Wisconsin and Michigan had the lowest proficiency standards in reading while South Carolina, California, Maine and Massachusetts had the highest. In math, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin had the lowest standards, according to the study, while South Carolina, Massachusetts, California and New Mexico had the highest.
As of 2006, according to The Proficiency Illusion, eight states had made their reading and/or math tests easier in at least two of their grade levels and four states had made their tests more challenging. The report charted improvement in passing rates on state tests to whether and/or how the tests were changed over the years. The study estimates that half of the reported improvement in reading and 70 percent of the reported improvement in mathematics appeared to be the result of making these state tests easier. This does not take into account the “teaching to the state test” phenomena that exist as an unstated policy in some states and districts.
The authors of The Proficiency Illusion forecast the confusion that exists today in evaluating the success or failure of NCLB. “Thus, five years into implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, there is no common understanding of what “proficiency” means. Its definition varies from state to state, from year to year, from subject to subject, and from grade level to grade level. This suggests that the goal of achieving “100 percent proficiency” has no coherent meaning, either. “Indeed, we run the risk that children in many states may be nominally proficient, but still lacking the education needed to be successful on a shrinking, flattening, and highly competitive planet.”
The CEP report sees less of a conflict between trends on state tests and NAEP evaluations. It shows that gaps narrowed on both state tests and NAEP in a majority of states. It also found examples of gaps narrowing on the state test and widening on NAEP. It found far fewer instances of a gap widening on NAEP but narrowing on the state test.
But regardless of how the gap is measured, there is complete agreement that the gap exists. And there is also agreement on the most strikingly pessimistic point of the study. Given the way that NCLB is administered and the rate at which it is producing positive results, it will take “many years to close most gaps.”