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July 11, 2015

Talking Points

Washington conventional wisdom says NCLB failed – research shows why that’s wrong

Civil rights supporters disagree about testing – and the research proves each side has a point

Let’s keep what worked and fix what didn’t in NCLB

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Several years after it was supposed to, Congress is finally close to re-authorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Senate bill now up for consideration – spruced up with a new name, the Every Child Achieves Act – maintains annual standardized tests in grades 3–8, but guts federal oversight of state accountability systems. Civil rights groups won’t be happy.
More than 40 organizations – including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and the National Urban League – recently urged the Senate to maintain tough testing and accountability in any NCLB re-write. The Congressional Tri-Caucus, which is composed of the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses, followed suit in a letter that calls for the Senate to strengthen the accountability aspects of its NCLB re-authorization draft.
Meanwhile, a vocal minority within the civil rights community has mobilized in opposition.
In a series of op-eds published in EdWeek, The Hill, and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project, John H. Jackson of the Schott Foundation and Pedro Noguera of NYU have sharply criticized the civil rights groups’ support of testing. So has the Network for Public Education – a group founded by Diane Ravitch – which put out a statement opposing “high-stakes testing” that was signed by a handful of local civil rights groups, including the Washington and Oregon state chapters of the NAACP.
“There is no evidence that these tests contribute to the quality of education, have led to improved educational equity in funding or programs, or have helped close the achievement gap,” they argue.
But this is simply wrong.
There is in fact a great deal of evidence that test-based accountability can improve student learning. At the same time skeptics have a point when they claim NCLB created perverse incentives to cheat and teach to the test. A close look at the research shows that policymakers ought to learn from each side as they attempt to craft a new law.
What the research says about “accountability”
The basic idea of NCLB accountability is to sanction schools – by, for example, firing the principal or allowing students to transfer to different schools – that don’t meet certain benchmarks for student performance (called “adequate yearly progress” or AYP).
The empirical evidence generally suggests that this aspect of the law improved student achievement in math. In one study, researchers compared performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – a no-stakes national test that is generally seen as not susceptible to cheating or other forms of gaming – between states that already had NCLB-style accountability to states that didn’t embrace accountability until the federal government made them. The thesis was that if NCLB were working, states with newly implemented accountability systems would show the most growth. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened with math performance, particularly for low-income students.
A different study compared public schools to Catholic schools (which are not subject to NCLB), and compared states with large numbers of schools required to make changes because of the law to states with fewer such schools. Once again, the researchers report that NCLB led to increases in student achievement on math tests.
Yet another recent analysis compared schools just above and just below the threshold – meaning the two groups were virtually identical – at which NCLB sanctions against a school were put in place.1 The paper found positive effects of sanctions on student growth, particularly among low-performing students.
It’s true that NCLB is not a slam dunk. There is research that suggests NCLB did not close the achievement gap, and some of the studies that do judge it favorably can be critiqued for their approaches. But, by and large, there is little doubt accountability has had a positive impact on student achievement, particularly in math.
At the same time, critics are right to say that test-based accountability has led to a slew of unintended consequences.
Outright cheating has occurred; some districts have avoided focusing on struggling students; participation in music classes has dropped among some disadvantaged students; effective teachers have fled schools that face accountability pressure; more students have been classified for special education, particularly low-income ones; “teaching to the test” has expanded; and effective teachers have been moved out of lower grades and into tested grades.
That’s a long list, but some of the more dire predictions prompted by NCLB have not been realized. Teacher job satisfaction did not plummet and neither did students’ enjoyment of learning.
So where does this leave the policymakers?
The emphasis going forward should be on how future policy can be designed to enhance the benefits and lower the costs of test-based accountability. This can be done by focusing on how much students grow as opposed to where they finish, and monitoring cheating and special education classification rates. Policymakers also need to ensure schools are rated on high-quality assessments that make teaching to the test difficult or unnecessary, create “balanced scorecards” for schools that consider non-test based measures of success, and ensure test scores don’t penalize schools with poor students or students with disabilities.
These sorts of policy changes are eminently feasible and would go a long way towards reducing the unintended consequences of NCLB.
They also seem to be largely off the table at this point.
Instead, much of the conversation about reauthorization is focused on debates about federalism and over-testing, important topics, but not ones that directly address what we’ve learned from 14 years of NCLB research. So yes, mainstream civil rights groups are on target in pointing to the benefits of accountability. But perhaps the divide among civil rights supporters, would not be nearly as large if each side could see both the successes and failures of NCLB.
Surely Congress could benefit from doing so as well.
Footnotes:
1. This is known as a regression discontinuity analysis, the basic idea being that schools just above and below an essentially arbitrary cut line are statistically indistinguishable, and thus any differences between the two groups can be causally attributed to the sanctions. (return to story)