Despite NCLB Law’s Emphasis On Reading And Math, National Test Scores Show Little Change

The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that it is inconclusive whether the No Child Left Behind Act is effectively raising student achievement. While there have been minor improvements in math scores, reading achievement has remained stagnant for the past two years.

According to the 2005 NAEP results, the average national scores for reading have only increased by one point for 4th graders since 2003, and have actually decreased by one point for 8th graders. Furthermore, reading scores for both grades have remained relatively the same since 1992. On the other hand, math scores have shown more significant improvements since 1990, but the rate of improvement has slowed in recent years. Fourth graders have seen a three-point gain since 2003, while 8th graders have only seen a one-point gain.

In terms of proficiency, 36 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were rated as "proficient" on the 2005 math test. Additionally, a larger percentage of students demonstrated at least basic skills compared to previous years, with 80 percent of 4th graders and 69 percent of 8th graders displaying these skills.

Secretary of Education Margaret S. Spellings has claimed that the gains on the long-term-trend NAEP exams are proof of the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. However, the recently released results, which had a larger sample size, indicate that progress has slowed or stagnated in the past few years. This raises questions about whether the law has had the desired impact on student achievement.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, aims to improve overall student achievement, with a focus on reading and math. The NAEP tests are considered the most reliable source for measuring national student achievement in core subjects. The tests also provide state-level results.

Secretary Spellings noted the gains made by African-American and Hispanic students, particularly a 2-point gain in reading for African-American 4th graders and a 3-point gain in reading for Hispanic 4th graders. She expressed satisfaction with the progress made by these students, as it aligns with the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.

However, the significance of these gains is subject to debate. While the gap between lower-scoring black and Hispanic students and higher-scoring white students has slightly narrowed, the minority students still lag behind by more than 20 points. Cathy L. Seeley, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, acknowledged that the math results are promising but highlighted that the achievement levels for minority students and those in poverty are still unacceptably low.

At a press conference, Grover J. Whitehurst, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, suggested that consistent, small improvements over a 15-year period could potentially close the achievement gap between minority students and their peers. However, much work still needs to be done to improve the educational outcomes for these students.

"The broader issue with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) presents a different challenge as it is designed to impact everyone," he remarked. "We should expect to see some effects of it, but the question is, how quickly should we see them?"

"When we look at the overall scores, especially at the 4th grade level," Mr. Shanahan continued, "there is no doubt that the scores have increased, but only by a small amount."

However, Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, emphasized that expecting rapid change in a large and complex education system like public schools may be unrealistic. "Anticipating significant change every two years is probably not practical," he stated at the press conference.

While the nation may be making progress in improving elementary school education, the reading performance of 8th graders is concerning. "As a former English teacher, the decline in reading skills distresses me," said John H. Stevens, the chairman of the governing board’s reporting and dissemination committee. "I believe that we need to explicitly focus on reading skills and content throughout high school and across all subjects," he argued.

Mr. Shanahan also highlighted that efforts should not stop at the early grades. "If we only focus on reforming reading instruction in the lower grades, it may not necessarily lead to higher achievement across the board."

"I wish I could solely blame the policymakers," he continued. "There are many people in the field who believed that improving primary grades would fix the problem."

State Differences

According to Mr. Winick of the NAEP governing board, the state-level results on the 2005 assessment were mixed, but several states showed positive outcomes due to their investments in improved instruction and increased accountability measures. "If we examine the data state by state, those states that prioritize results tend to achieve them," he explained. "Whenever we look, these states demonstrate significant gains in math and reading."

This was particularly evident at the 4th grade level, where Texas experienced a 4-point increase in reading scores and a 5-point increase in math scores. Idaho and Pennsylvania also showed higher scores in these subjects at the 4th grade level. Overall, seven states had statistically significant improvements in reading scores for 4th graders, while seven states saw a decline in scores for 8th graders. In terms of the math test, more than 30 states, including Texas, showed improvements for 4th graders, and seven states did so for 8th graders.

In addition to the test results, this year’s NAEP reports included information on the changing racial and ethnic composition of student populations between 1992 and 2005. "As our country becomes more diverse, so do our student populations, which vary across states and over time," stated Mr. Stevens from NAGB. "Therefore, we should interpret achievement data and trends as a reflection of both changing demographics and school effectiveness." He also mentioned that the size of the Hispanic student population has more than doubled nationally in the past 15 years, indicating the need for analysis that accounts for these demographic changes.

"It is noteworthy that as our student population becomes increasingly diverse, the scores continue to rise," argued Secretary Spellings. The national assessment, which started in 1969, has also become more inclusive over time, offering accommodations for students with disabilities or limited English fluency. This raises questions about how to interpret the results, particularly when the percentage of excluded students varies across states. For example, Delaware, Louisiana, and Virginia excluded 10% or more of their 4th grade students with disabilities from the 2005 reading exam, while New Mexico and Texas excluded 7% and 6% of students who were still learning English, respectively. Previous analyses have shown a slight correlation between exclusion rates and aggregate scores, with states that raise exclusion rates tending to have higher scores on the next assessment, and vice versa.


  • camdynelliott

    Camdyn Elliott is a 35-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. She has been writing about education for nearly a decade, and her work has been featured on sites like The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Camdyn is the founder of the education blog Education Week, and she is also the author of the book "How to Teach Like a Pro: A Guide to Effective Teaching Methods for College and Career Students."

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