Black-White Test-Score Gap Narrows; Is NCLB Working?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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The Center on Education Policy has conducted a detailed analysis of test-score trends since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002. The report finds reading and math scores up in most states. Further, the black-white test-score gap has narrowed in most of the states analyzed. Some commentators are taking these findings to mean that NCLB is succeeding. The truth is that we really don’t know if NCLB is working or not.

For black students, we have findings from only a little more that a dozen states. This is because it was only appropriate to conduct the black-white test-score gap analysis on states with sufficient data available and with a large enough population of black students to yield reliable statistics. The table below provides a summary of some of the report’s findings. For elementary, middle and high schools, in reading and in math, a large majority of the states analyzed showed narrowing achievement gaps between black and white students since 2002.

If test scores are up and racial gaps are narrowing, doesn’t this mean that NCLB is working? No, it doesn’t. As the authors of the report state on page 1: “it is not possible to directly relate changes in student achievement to NCLB.” Contrary to popular belief, test scores have risen often prior to NCLB, particularly in the lower grades. (See the long-term math trends.) So, rising scores alone do not tell us whether NCLB caused the increase or some other factor that has produced increases in test scores in the past. To complicate matters further, something completely new—that is not NCLB—could be causing an increase in test scores.

Prior researchers have attempted to evaluate NCLB by comparing the growth in test scores before and after NCLB. The logic is that if student scores are increasing at, lets say, on average, three points a year before NCLB and then they increase at five points a year after NCLB, this looks like NCLB is responsible for the additional two points a year growth. Earlier research that I have seen with this methodology has found no significant positive effect after NCLB. (See the Civil Rights Project report using this method.)

This type of research is suggestive, but not conclusive. It’s not a slam dunk. If NCLB is a super, great program one would expect it to have big effects that would be clearly visible. But it could still work and not show much effect. If student test scores go from three points a year before NCLB to one point a year after NCLB, NCLB could still be effective. In this situation, it could be that were it not for NCLB student scores would have been declining by three points a year. NCLB could be preventing negative growth that is due to something else.

Just as we could not assume that declining test scores were the result of NCLB, we can’t assume that increasing test scores are the result of NCLB either. Scores are going up, but we’re seen big jumps in test scores in the past for reasons other than NCLB. In the past, however, few people in the media paid any attention.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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