NCLB is Not 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 long-term trend version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the best measure of how black students are doing academically over time. The results from last year's NAEP exams were released Wednesday, and they provide more evidence that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is not working.

The good news from the most recent long-term NAEP is that black students made slight increases in their 2008 average scores relative to the prior assessment in 2004. None of the recent increases were significant, however. The increases are still worth nothing because there have been periods where there have been declines in black scores. In other words, the results could have been much worse.

In contrast to the most recent results, from 1999 to 2004, younger black students made big gains in their NAEP scores. The long-term trend NAEP is given to 9 year olds, 13 year olds and 17 year olds. The black-white gap for 9 year olds in math was 28 points in 1999. From 1999 to 2004, in math, black 9 year olds increased their average score 13 points--nearly half the size of the black-white gap. Black 13 year olds increased their math score 11 points, but black 17 year olds only increased their score 2 points.

Proponents of NCLB, which started in 2002, claimed that the big gains from 1999 to 2004 were evidence that the Act was working. Research by the Civil Rights Project showed that the increase in test scores were likely due to factors other than NCLB. The fact that the gains in test scores have stalled from 2004 to 2008 while NCLB has continued supports the Civil Rights Project argument. NCLB isn't working.

Although black students made big gains from 1999 to 2004, this improvement did little to change the overall black-white test score gap because white students made roughly equivalent test score gains. Reducing the test-score gap is important, but we should also celebrate the black 1999-2004 test-score increases even if they did not substantially reduce the gaps.

Still, what can be done to eliminate the black-white test-score gap?

The scholarly evidence continues to mount that economic disparities cause educational disparities. It seems unlikely that we will be able to eliminate the test-score gap while economic inequality between blacks and whites remains so great. The black-white income and wealth gaps are large. In 2007, for every dollar of income the average white household had, the average black household only had 62 cents. For every dollar of assets the average white household held, the average black household only held 10 cents.

Researchers have found that more than half of the achievement gap can be attributed to economic and educational differences between black and white parents. Other factors relating to the differences in the educational opportunities provided to black and white children account for much of the remaining gap.

The NAEP gains from 1999 to 2004 may be an example of the importance of economic factors. The early childhood years are especially important for future educational achievement. From 1995 to 2000, blacks increased their employment rate, experienced income gains, and had dramatically declining rates of poverty. The children whose early childhood years were during this period of increasing economic prosperity showed the biggest gains in the long-term NAEP. The black 9 year olds who had the largest test-score gains in 2004 were born in 1995, just as the economic good times began.

In the late 1990s, blacks were not the only ones experiencing economic good times. Whites also benefitted from a strong economy, and the white children born in 1995 also showed large test-score gains. The matching white increase in test-scores is the reason why the black student test-score gains did not lead to significant reductions in the test-score gap.

We need to increase job opportunities in poor black communities and see that black workers earn equivalent salaries to comparable white workers. A new Urban Institute study finds that in the low-wage labor market, black workers earn 12 percent less than similar white workers. Until we address the black-white income and wealth gaps, I have little hope that we will be able to reduce the black-white test-score gap.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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