Study Finds Dramatic Math, Reading Gains

 

Most states have seen dramatic improvements in math and reading test results since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act five years ago, but it's too early to tell whether the gains can be tied directly to that landmark law, according to a new report released Tuesday (June 5).

In one of the first studies of its kind, the Center on Education Policy also found that more states are narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students, a major objective of NCLB.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank, which has released several reports on the effects of NCLB, analyzed two major data points from each state: the percentage of students who scored proficient on state tests since 2002, and students' average test scores. The report also features individual state profiles .

The biggest finding was that most states have improved student performance. Out of six categories - reading and math results for elementary, middle and high school students - the bulk of the states saw improvement across four or more categories. Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Washington had the best results, with moderate-to-large gains in all six categories.

Only three states - Connecticut, Nevada and South Carolina - saw declines in at least three categories.

The study also reported that although the achievement gap, or the gap between white students' test scores and minority students' scores, is still wide, more states are narrowing their achievement gaps than widening them. Additionally,nine states - Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wyoming - had greater average yearly test gains after NCLB's enactment than before it.

"State test results are the best evidence of whether kids know more. … We're trying to present solid evidence and ground the debate in facts rather than just assertions," said Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the center.

Jennings was quick to caution, however, that "we cannot say that NCLB caused these increases because there's too many other things going on at the same time."

The study explained that other factors besides NCLB could have contributed to the increases, such as increased student learning, more teaching to the test, tweaks made to state tests and changes in student populations, such as more students being held back a grade and having to re-take a test.

Nonetheless, people likely will tie the increases to NCLB. As NCLB undergoes a tough re-authorization in Congress this year - with several disparate groups clamoring for major changes and some Republican lawmakers calling for states to be allowed to scrap the law altogether - the report could be used as political fodder.

"Clearly, if it says that student achievement has increased, there are people that are looking for that kind of support to justify their position on No Child Left Behind," said David Shreve, an education analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Based on this report, Jennings said the center's only recommendation for changes to NCLB is to find a way to help states track and report better data on student scores.

The difficulty of gathering consistent information from all states meant the report had to make some adjustments. For example, only 41 states had the necessary data - percentage of proficient students - to compare the changes in reading scores for elementary school students. Of those 41 states, 36 showed gains in performance while five showed declines.

Also, since 2002 states have made 37 major test changes, with many states adding tests for the first time. In those instances, the report only analyzed data if there were results from at least three consecutive years on one test. 

 
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