NAEP Scores Reveal NCLB’s Successes, Weaknesses

Published December 1, 2005

When the results of the latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests were released October 19, the nation had its first glimpse of how well the policies introduced by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are working since President George W. Bush signed the law in 2002.

Though Republican leaders such as Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings praised the modest gains and slightly narrower achievement gaps between white and African-American students, education analysts said much more work needs to be done before NCLB lives up to its hype.

According to an October 19 news release from the U.S. Department of Education:

  • Average reading and math scores increased for fourth-grade students nationwide, and the racial achievement gap narrowed in both subjects.
  • The racial achievement gap in eighth-grade math narrowed to its lowest point since 1990, when the NAEP was first administered.
  • Overall fourth- and eighth-grade math scores reached all-time highs, and overall fourth-grade reading scores matched their all-time high.
  • African-American fourth-graders achieved their highest reading and math scores to date.

Deciphering the Spin

Read another way, however, the 2005 results indicate achievement has remained fairly flat since 2003, “showing that whatever public school educators have done to raise scores–which they claim is a lot–has not translated into improved achievement as measured by NAEP,” said George Clowes, senior fellow at The Heartland Institute and former managing editor of School Reform News.

“Despite the spur of NCLB, the percentage of fourth-graders who scored ‘below basic’–i.e., illiterate–remained unchanged at 36 percent from 2002 to 2005,” Clowes said. “The lack of improvement raises serious questions about the efficacy of current reading instruction methods in the early grades.”

In eighth grade, reading achievement levels dropped from 32 percent proficiency in 2003 to 31 percent this year, while the proportion of eighth-graders deemed “below basic” rose from 25 to 27 percent.

“For public schools to claim to educate all students and then render one in four of them effectively illiterate by eighth grade is nothing short of educational malfeasance,” Clowes said. “It is a tragic waste of human potential affecting millions of lives.”

Reforming Teachers

Though Bush told The New York Times on October 20 he was pleased with the test results because they reflected a narrowing achievement gap, Education Trust Policy Director Ross Wiener warned against being overly optimistic.

“The absence of really bad news isn’t the same as good news,” Wiener said, “and if you’re concerned about education and closing achievement gaps, there’s simply not enough good news in these national results.”

In an October 22 editorial, The New York Times said in order to make real gains in education, the Bush administration will have to focus less on testing of students and more on better teacher training, “which will in turn mean cracking the whip on teachers’ colleges that have basically ignored the standards movement.”

Repackaging Reform

Though NCLB, at least as measured by the NAEP, appears to be leaving one in every four children behind, the law does have its good points, said Herb Walberg, a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution and chairman of The Heartland Institute’s board of directors.

“Research suggests the accountability feature of NCLB is raising achievement, and the law does provide increased choice of supplementary education services and increased school choice,” Walberg noted. “The public reporting requirements are letting parents and citizens know how badly their neighborhood schools are doing.”

However, Walberg said, “there is an alarming federal and state ‘big brother’ aspect of the legislation, and I would much prefer to see decentralization and consumer choice.”

Still Awaiting Vouchers

Universal school choice, Clowes agreed, is a greater long-term key to success than increased testing.

“The public schools’ lack of progress in raising student achievement shows that reforming K-12 education requires not only the achievement targets that NCLB has established, but also the reinstatement of what was part and parcel of the original NCLB proposal–private school vouchers–to provide the necessary incentive for public schools to improve,” Clowes said.

“In Florida and Milwaukee, vouchers have shown they provide that incentive, and public schools there have improved. These latest NAEP results show that the voucher incentive should never have been removed from the original NCLB reform package,” Clowes noted.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.