Policy Documents

Were All Those Standardized Tests For Nothing? The Lessons Of No Child Left Behind

Thomas Ahn, and Jacob L. Vigdor –
May 21, 2013

In this policy report on K-12 accountability, the authors contend that, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) introduced the first nationwide annual standardized testing requirement for students in grades 3 through 8. The law officially expired in 2007, and there is little or no legislative momentum to reauthorize it now. Should NCLB be thought of as a well-intentioned initiative that failed? Or did it make some progress in its stated goal of improving academic achievement, particularly for disadvantaged students?

The basic structure of the school incentives introduced by NCLB, as well as research and data from North Carolina public schools on the effect of these various sanctions on student learning.

Among the main findings:

  • Evidence indicates that school accountability systems in general, and NCLB in particular, have beneficial systemic effects on standardized test scores. The overall effects are modest; however, accountability systems are complex policies that may entail a mix of beneficial and harmful elements. The most critical question is not whether NCLB worked, but which components worked.
  • Schools exposed to punitive NCLB sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, tend to outperform nearly identical schools that barely avoided them. Studies come to varying conclusions regarding differential effects by subject.
  • Most of the individual sanctions in the NCLB regime—including offering students transfers, tutoring, or modest “corrective actions”—appear to have had no effect.
  • Schools forced to undergo restructuring under NCLB posted significant improvements in both reading and math scores, suggesting that leadership change is an essential component of reform in persistently low-performing schools.
  • While a pure focus on proficiency can lead to scenarios where schools divert resources from higher- or lower-performing students, complementary policies focusing on those students appear to mitigate the risk substantially