WASHINGTON – 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 Tuesday.
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 D.C.-based center and a former Democratic congressional aide, said a decade of school improvement efforts at local, state and national levels have 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.
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.
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.
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 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.