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Guest Voz: Former NCES commissioner finds nation’s black and Latino students worse off because of No Child Left Behind

By Mark Schneider

(This blog post was originally published on October 14, 2009 at The Enterprise Blog of The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute)

Mark Schneider

Mark Schneider is the former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. He currently is on staff at the American Institutes for Research.




This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released the 2009 math scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The results are bad news for the nation, but even worse for those who want to hold firm in the looming reauthorization debate over the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Signed into law in January 2002, NCLB formed the foundation of the Bush administration’s education policy. In the face of bitter resistance from teachers and from critics who thought the law was poorly designed and unrealistic, the Bush administration mounted one consistent defense: math scores on the NAEP, the nation’s report card, were increasing, especially among black and Hispanic students and among the nation’s lowest performing students.

While critics questioned whether the post-NCLB gains actually marked an improvement over the pre-NCLB trend, defenders responded that it would take time for NCLB’s reforms to gain traction, and that gains would accelerate over time. This is why the results of the 2009 assessment are so important.

How did the nation’s students do in the NCLB era?

At the fourth grade level, student scores were unchanged since 2007. This is unprecedented — the NAEP math assessment has been given eight times since 1990, and this is the first time that scores did not increase.

At the eighth grade level, scores continued their trend of slowly increasing, up 2 points since 2007. (Between 2003 and 2005, scores increased by 1 point, and between 2005 and 2007 by 2 points.)

This certainly is not good news for the proponents of NCLB. But if one takes a longer historical view, the news buried in the report is even worse.

The 2003 NAEP math assessment was the first assessment after NCLB’s enactment.

The six-year post-NCLB period between 2003 and 2009 can be matched almost exactly in length by the seven years between the 1996 NAEP math test and 2003. The simple comparison of pre- and post-NCLB scores is bad for NCLB as shown in Figures 1 and 2.


figure 1.jpg

Figure 1 shows the pattern for fourth grade students, graphing the size of the gains overall and for each of the student groups that NCLB was specifically designed to help: low-performing students, black students, and Hispanic students.

In each case, we see that the pre-NCLB gains were greater than the post-NCLB gains, sometimes substantially. For example, among the lowest-performing students in the nation (those scoring in the bottom 10 percent), scores between 1996 and 2003 increased by 15 points. In the NCLB years, they increased by only 5 points. Gains among Hispanic and black students were also far lower during the post-NCLB period.


Figure 2.jpg

Figure 2 shows the results for eighth grade. The gaps between the gains in the pre-NCLB versus post-NCLB period are much smaller than for fourth grade, but for each group the gains were lower after 2003.

There are many possible explanations for this pattern–and unfortunately it’s impossible to determine which one is correct. I believe that one of the most obvious flaws in the law, which contributed substantially toward this disappointing result, was calling for all students to be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, while allowing states to develop their own proficiency standards and assessments.

The results, in hindsight, were predictable yet unintended–states had strong incentives to adopt low standards, maybe even lower than they would have adopted without NCLB.

In 2007, when I was commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, we showed that most states were setting their proficiency standards at NAEP’s basic level and some states even lower than that.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called this “lying to children and their parents because states have dumbed down their standards.” The irony here is that NCLB was built on a strong state standards and accountability movement but may have actually served to undermine the movement’s goals.

The work of the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers on common core state standards is particularly important in rectifying this mistake.

Others offer their own reasons for the failure of NCLB — ranging from underfunding, to maligning teachers, to offering too much choice, to… The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, we have too many possible explanations for far too little data — but the bottom line is clear: NCLB has not worked the way it was intended and the nation is worse off because of it.

The reauthorization of NCLB was going to be contentious to begin with, now these newest math results will serve to intensify the debate.

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  • kathleen leos
    October 18, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    it is important to remember that in 2002 when NCLB was signed only 11 states had academic content standards in reading/language arts and math. By June 2003, all states had submitted academic content standards but a peer review process by the experts consulting to the US Dept of Ed did not begin a review until 2005. Most states did not pass the process due to lack of rigor and had to redo or amend the standards.Concurrently, states had to develop English language proficiency standards to assist English language learners gain access to the same academic grade level content standards by acquiring high levels of the English language to master grade level content. States did not finish that process until 2007. The fact that states now have aligned academic standards in science, math and language arts is unheard of in education. The process to benchmark them ag NAEP standards is admirable but more significant is the effort to develop and adopt Common Core National Content Standards benchmarked against International Standards. For the first time in public ed history all states have an accountability system and data to analyze results and standards. By including the requirement to develop and align English language proficiency standards to the content and achievement standards for ELL student fulfill (for the first time in public ed history) the intent of the education civil rights mandate outlined in Lau v Nichols that language may NOT be a barrier to academic content knowledge. This effort would not and had not happened EVER until the passage of NOLB to say that it failed our children especially Hispanics and ELLs is inaccurate.It is the first time that legislation specifically addresses the education civil rights of ELLs comprehensively. The failure is to allow any state to not fulfill its legislated promise and requirement to implement this integrated system with aligned assessments and longitudinal data analysis. ELLs are finally on the academic map- let’s advocate for their success by fulfilling the promise and hope Congress offered them in the landmark legislation No Child Left Behind- Title III Kathleen Leos- former Assistant Deputy Secretary US Dept of Ed 02-07 NCLB Title III.

  • laura
    October 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    This is truly bad news for Latina/o children and for the nation. I seriously doubt that increased testing, as required by NCLB, helps anyone.
    I think we should do what countries with good education systems do: pay teachers excellent salaries, make obtaining a teaching position competitive, and pay teachers in the most difficult schools the most. Salaries should be set to a level where only 20% of applicants for teacher positions are accepted. Throwing money at this problem would work.
    Goldman Sachs is paying out $23 billion dollars in bonuses (on top of salaries!) to its bankers this year. This money consists of taxpayer dollars.
    I suggest we take the $23 billion taxpayer dollars back – this will affect only one single bank – and spend them to hire superb teachers throughout the country, to renovate dilapidated schools, and to supply all schools with state of the art music, athletic, arts and science equipment.
    The renovations, the equipment, and the salaries would be a good jobs creation program in addition to laying a foundation for this country’s future by educating our children. Everyone, even the wealthiest school districts, would benefit.
    Why not, President Obama? Why not, Secretary Timothy Geithner and Professor Larry Summers? Why not, Secretary Arne Duncan?

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