NCLB Had Mixed Impact on Achievement, Study Finds

No Child Left Behind's accountability measures had no impact on children's reading achievement but did lead to some gains in math achievement by some measures, according to new research out of the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Swarthmore College.

In what's being described by U Michigan as "the first known rigorous national impact evaluation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act," researchers examined data "on multiple student-outcome measures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress" and used a comparative interrupted time series approach to compare results between schools that did not have "consequential school accountability" measures in place before NCLB was signed into law at the beginning of 2002 and those that had already implemented these sorts of accountability measures prior to NCLB.

They also explored the impacts of NCLB at different base achievement levels (high and low percentiles), race, gender, and economic status based on eligibility for free lunches.

Report co-author Brian Jacob, a Ford School professor, said the results were mixed for NCLB, which has been the centerpiece of federal education policy for the last seven years and which instituted "accountability" for schools in the form of compulsory, high-stakes standardized testing that would be used to identify schools failing to meet "adequate yearly progress" on student achievement as measured by these tests.

"The prior evidence on the achievement effects is quite limited. Earlier studies have either focused on single districts or states, relied on state developed assessments that are subject to 'score inflation,' or used weak research designs that confound the impact of NCLB with other social, educational and economic factors," Jacob said in a statement issued by U Michigan Thursday. "We believe this new research sheds much-needed light on the results of what was arguably the most far-reaching education policy initiative of the last forty years."

So what were the results? According to the report, called "The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement," there were significant effects from NCLB's accountability measures on math achievement as measured by data the researchers focused on, including:

  • Statistically significant increases in average math performance among fourth-graders;
  • Statistically significant math improvements in lower and top percentile achievement groups among fourth-graders; and
  • Some math improvement at the eighth-grade level among historically low-achieving groups.

What the researchers did not find, however, was any impact on reading achievement at either the fourth- or eighth-grade levels or any measured improvement in math scores among eighth graders in average and high-achieving groups.

According to Jacob and co-author Thomas Dee of Swarthmore College, these results do have implications for reauthorization.

"The mixed results presented here pose difficult but important questions for policymakers questioning whether to 'end' or 'mend' NCLB," the authors said in the report. "The evidence of substantial and almost universal gains in math is undoubtedly good news for advocates of NCLB and school accountability. On the other hand, the lack of any effect in reading, and the fact that NCLB appears to have generated only modestly larger impacts among disadvantaged subgroups in math (and thus only made minimal headway in closing achievement gaps), suggests that, to date, the impact of NCLB has fallen short of its ambitious [rhetoric]."

The complete 76-page report, "The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement," can be accessed on the National Bureau of Economic Research site here. (There is a $5 fee for the digital version, though some are eligible for a free copy.)

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .