Correction to This Article
ยท An Oct. 2 Page One article about how area schools are faring under the No Child Left Behind Act incorrectly reported that Bailey's Elementary School in Fairfax County missed a state achievement target in math this year. Virginia initially reported that the school fell short of the state standard but has since reversed that finding.

Needy Students Closing Test Gap Under 'No Child'

By Maria Glod and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Since enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, students from poor families in the Washington area have made major gains on reading and math tests and are starting to catch up with those from middle-class and affluent backgrounds, a Washington Post analysis shows.

The achievement gap between economic groups, long a major frustration for educators, has narrowed in the region's suburban schools since President Bush signed the law in 2002, according to Maryland and Virginia test data.

In Montgomery County, for instance, students in poverty have earned better scores on Maryland's reading test in each of the past five years, slicing in half the 28 percentage-point gulf that separated their pass rate from the county average. They also have made a major dent in the math gap. In Fairfax County, another suburban academic powerhouse, such students have slashed the achievement gaps on Virginia tests.

In the District, where most public school students come from low-income homes, reading and math scores have risen since the 2006 debut of new tests. But fewer than half of the students passed the spring D.C. exams. In Prince George's County, where about half of the students come from poverty, overall scores have climbed steadily since 2003, but the system still trails its wealthier neighbors.

The results show substantial progress in the Washington area toward the law's core goal: raising performance of disadvantaged children. Although concerns persist about the law's emphasis on standardized tests, many educators say it has forced schools to concentrate more systematically on each struggling student.

"As much as I'd say I wish we didn't have to necessarily take these tests, I know it's made us better," said Angela Robinson, principal at Loudoun County's Sugarland Elementary School, which reached achievement targets under the law this year after falling short in 2007. "Before NCLB was put in place, yes, we paid attention to those groups, but it was not with the same focus that we do now."

Despite optimism about rising scores, some experts caution that state tests are an unreliable gauge because standards vary from place to place. They point to national test scores that show progress at a much slower pace than in the Washington area, with some achievement gaps holding steady. Many principals and teachers question whether all students, including most of those with disabilities, should be held to the same academic goals. Many suburban parents complain that schools spend too much time "teaching to the test" and give short shrift to such subjects as history, music and the arts. And on the campaign trail, No Child Left Behind has lost its appeal for Republicans and Democrats.

Debate continues about how much the law has helped or hurt public education, but there is little doubt that it has led to significant changes, amounting to a cultural shift in many schools.

Teachers, once largely on their own, often work in teams to improve and fine-tune lessons and brainstorm ways to help students. The massive expansion of testing -- required every year from grades 3 through 8, and once in high school -- has become part of the classroom fabric. Many schools have added periodic mini-tests that help provide an instructional road map. When a few kids stumble, they often get extra help. When an entire class misses questions, the teacher is likely to tackle the lesson again.

Through the law, the federal government mandates that schools become an equalizer for children -- and prove it through test scores. Middle- and upper-class children, who typically have more books at home and are read to more often, usually arrive at school with a head start.

The law set the ambitious goal of having all students pass grade-level reading and math exams by 2014. Overall gains aren't enough. Groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities and those from families poor enough to qualify for school lunch subsidies, must also reach targets. Schools that fall short face various sanctions.

Scores are rising steadily in the area's largest suburban systems. Still, only three posted pass rates higher than 90 percent on state reading tests: Fairfax, Loudoun and Howard county schools. None topped 90 percent in math.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company