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'No Child Left Behind' Law Produces Few Gains

The U.S. Department of Education has just released the latest findings from the "Nation's Report Card," the leading nationwide measurement of educational outcomes. The findings contained good news for critics of the 2001 federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But supporters of the law got good news of their own.

The good news for the critics is that the Nation's Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

The good news for supporters is that the Nation's Report Card shows reading and math scores still have not substantially changed since 1971.

Welcome to the confusing world of education policy!

First, let's run down the tale of the tape. Since 1971, the Nation's Report Card has been administered to a large, representative sample of students in two different formats. The standard format is now given every year. (Before NCLB it was given less frequently and was not given in all states; making the Nation's Report Card an annual 50-state measurement is one of the best reforms we got from NCLB.)

Trouble is, over the years the standard format has changed to keep up with the latest advances in testing practices. That makes it hard to compare 1971 scores to today's. So the test is periodically administered in a second, "long-term trend" format that allows for direct comparisons across decades.

The 2008 long-term trend results were just released. The results among 17-year-olds are the ones that really matter, because they represent the end result of education. In that group, reading scores are up one point since 1971, the year of the first reading test; math results are up two points since 1973, the year of the first math test.

That's one point and two points out of a scale of five hundred.

Flat results among 17-year-olds might be a good sign if public school graduation rates had gone up over the same period, since dropouts don't get tested. If we did a better job of keeping the worst-performing students in the testing pool, but overall results didn't go down, that would be an improvement. Alas, public school graduation rates are actually somewhat down since 1970. So flat scores really represent backsliding.

To bend over backwards to be fair, let's note that in 2004 the test started including somewhat more English language learners and students with learning disabilities. A major "bridge" study conducted by the department showed that this change caused scores to go down by two points.

Still, adjusting the apparent gains since 1971 to three points and four points respectively, out of a five-hundred-point scale that's not a big movement. When you balance that against the drop in graduation rates, which went down by almost four percentage points, it really represents no gain at all.

It's true that the reading score went upward by three points from 2004 to 2008. Unfortunately, that's after it had gone downward by three points from 1999 to 2004. Likewise, math scores went up by one point between 2004 and 2008 after going down one point between 1999 and 2004. Scores have been fluctuating up and down within about that range since the test began in 1971. So if NCLB is having any impact, it's so small you can't distinguish it from the normal fluctuation of the scores.

It's also true that in the two other age groups tested, age nine and age 13, scores are somewhat higher now than they were in 1971. Unfortunately, the gains in those groups were realized mostly before 2004. Math scores have been trending slowly upward since the 1980s, and reading scores saw a bump between 1999 and 2004 but not much other movement. Four years ago, I thought the improvements in those younger age levels were a hopeful sign for NCLB. Unfortunately, they slowed down after 2004, so even that good news is getting less relevant.

Obviously, critics of the law can take this as vindication. NCLB doesn't seem to be producing academic gains on any really substantial level. Certainly the law's promise to produce 100% student proficiency by 2014, which didn't pass the laugh test even in 2001, is looking more ridiculous by the day.

But it's important for us to ask why NCLB isn't producing gains. To begin with, the supposedly disastrous effects of NCLB have all failed to materialize.

People said the harsh sanctions would punish schools unfairly, but in fact schools labeled "failing" are subject to virtually no actual punishment. People said implementing the testing requirements would be too expensive, but it wasn't. People said "real learning" would be sacrificed to mere rote drills, and other subjects would be cut in favor of nothing but endless reading and math instruction, all for the sake of the test. But there's no evidence of that -- and if it were happening, we would at least have seen some movement in the Nation's Report Card, which we haven't. People said NCLB would lead to massive dumbing down of state standards. But state standards were being dumbed down anyway due to other political imperatives, and NCLB doesn't seem to have accelerated the trend.

That's why supporters of the law can also claim vindication from the results of the Nation's Report Card. NCLB failed to deliver the good, but it also failed (if that's the word for it) to deliver the bad.

Also, the lack of results did not occur because holding schools accountable for results doesn't work. In states that have implemented accountability programs correctly, such as Florida, there have been impressive academic gains.

Rather, NCLB isn't producing gains because it's toothless. You can't have "accountability" if no one is ever actually held to account. But NCLB's official "sanctions" on failing schools are so full of loopholes you can drive the U.S. Department of Education through. And even where there aren't loopholes, schools can fall back on simple, outright failure to enforce the law. When it comes to ignoring the law, Wall Street has nothing on the government school system.

All this doesn't mean NCLB is worthless. As I've always argued, the real value of NCLB is in the critical data it gathers. For a century, the government school monopoly protected itself from public scrutiny by covering itself in a shroud of secrecy. It could cultivate a powerful mystique of excellence as long as no one was able to measure the real output of the system. Now that mystique is shattered, and it's largely because we have the data to show how much is wrong with the government's schools.

And the data are helping us figure out what works to make schools better. For example, in the last few years there has been an explosive growth of interest in teacher quality, whereas for decades before the only thing you heard about was teacher quantity (as in the old teacher-union canard of smaller class sizes). And the teacher quality reformers aren't buying into the teacher-union myths that worthless paper "certificates" equal good teachers. All this was driven by the NCLB data revolution.

It's now clear that we can't construct a workable accountability system at the federal level. The political barriers are just too high. We should preserve the invaluable data collection function of NCLB and otherwise allow states like Florida -- where the local political system has truly embraced reform -- to get on with their own accountability systems. And we should focus on other reform strategies that don't require us to squabble over whether government schools should be labeled "failing" or just "in need of improvement."

If only there were a school reform policy with a consistent track record of improving schools, and that had consistently shown stronger political viability than accountability reforms. Hmmmm.