By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The nation's students have performed significantly better on state reading and math tests since President Bush signed his landmark education initiative into law five years ago, according to a major independent study released yesterday.
The study's authors warned that it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains. But Republican and Democratic supporters of the law said the findings indicate that it has been a success. Some said the findings bolster the odds that Congress will renew the controversial law this year.
"This study confirms that No Child Left Behind has struck a chord of success with our nation's schools and students," U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement. "We know the law is working, so now is the time to reauthorize."
The report, which experts called the most comprehensive analysis of test data from all 50 states since 2002, concluded that the achievement gap between black and white students is shrinking in many states and that the pace of student gains increased after the law was enacted. The findings were particularly significant because of their source: the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, which in recent years has issued several reports that have found fault with aspects of the law's implementation.
Jack Jennings, president of the District-based center and a former Democratic congressional aide, said a decade of school improvement efforts at local, state and national levels has contributed to achievement gains.
"No Child Left Behind, though, is clearly part of the mix of reforms whose fruit we are now seeing," he said.
Some skeptics said the study overstated the extent of academic gains. Others said the law should not be credited for the positive results.
"There are a lot of problems with No Child Left Behind that we need to fix because they work against some of the progress that is being noted in this study," said Edward J. McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.3 million-member union.
The law requires all public school students to be tested in reading and math every year from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, and it prescribes a series of sanctions on schools that do not make adequate progress. States and the District are allowed to design their own tests and set their own standards.
President Bush and senior Democratic lawmakers are seeking to renew No Child Left Behind this year, despite mounting attacks on the law from the political left and right. Some conservative Republicans call the law an unnecessary expansion of federal government, and some liberal Democrats complain it has placed too much emphasis on high-stakes tests and discouraged creativity.
Key lawmakers worry that if the law is not reauthorized by year's end, it will become next to impossible to do so until a new president takes office in 2009. One crucial sign of progress or stalemate is whether the congressional education committees approve a bill before the August recess.
Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees elementary and secondary education, plans to review the center's study with Jennings in a hearing tomorrow.
"I think the study certainly will be helpful for winning reauthorization of No Child Left Behind," Kildee said. "Passing a major education bill is difficult, but I think the energy is there, and this study will contribute to the will to get something done."
Researchers for the nearly $1 million study -- titled "Answering the Question That Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?" -- spent 18 months gathering data from the states, much of which was verified and brought together for the first time. They said D.C. public schools did not cooperate.
The study examined the percentage of students whose scores were rated as proficient or higher, a frequently reported measure, and a less-common statistical tool, known as "effect size," to help gauge average student performance. Conclusions were drawn from states that administered comparable tests for at least three years. Gaps in the data meant that not all states were included in evaluations of certain subjects and grade levels.
The study found that gains tended to be larger in math than in reading and larger at the elementary level than in middle and high school.
In elementary school math, 37 out of 41 states with adequate data showed significant gains.
In middle school reading, such increases were found in 20 out of 39 states, and in high school reading, in 16 out of 37.
The study also found that 14 of 38 states with sufficient data showed shrinking gaps in reading scores between black and white students and that there was no evidence of a widening achievement gap in that subject in other states. The researchers cautioned that the gaps remain enormous, with black students scoring as many as 30 percentage points, on average, behind white students in some states.
The analysis also found that test-score gains accelerated after enactment of No Child Left Behind in nine of the 13 states with sufficient data.
In the Washington region, the study confirmed previous reports of increases in reading and math scores in Maryland and Virginia.
Virginia was one of the few states where gains slowed after 2002. Andrew J. Rotherham, a member of the state Board of Education, said Virginia had made major progress before the law took effect.
Some scholars criticized the report's methodology. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, said it made little sense to draw conclusions when so few states have adequate data. He also said the researchers overstated small gains and did not adequately address states that he said have been dumbing down standards.
"These big-hearted analysts, to amend an adage, look at a glass that's nine-tenths' empty and celebrate that it's one-tenth full," Fuller wrote in an e-mail.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the District-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and who has criticized the law's implementation, said the study showed that academic performance is moving in the right direction even though much remains to done.
"It's not champagne time," Finn said. "But it's not sackcloth and ashes time, either."