Were all those standardized tests for nothing? The lessons of No Child Left Behind

By Thomas Ahn, Jacob L. Vigdor /American Enterprise Institute

Executive Summary,  

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) introduced the first nationwide annual standardized testing requirement for students in grades 3 through 8. The law officially expired in 2007, and there is little or no legislative momentum to reauthorize it now. Should NCLB be thought of as a well-intentioned initiative that failed? Or did it make some progress in its stated goal of improving academic achievement, particularly for disadvantaged students?

This paper reviews the basic structure of the school incentives introduced by NCLB, as well as research and data from North Carolina public schools on the effect of these various sanctions on student learning. Among the main findings:

  • Evidence indicates that school accountability systems in general, and NCLB in particular, have beneficial systemic effects on standardized test scores. The overall effects are modest; however, accountability systems are complex policies that may entail a mix of beneficial and harmful elements. The most critical question is not whether NCLB worked, but which components worked.
  • Schools exposed to punitive NCLB sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, tend to outperform nearly identical schools that barely avoided them. Studies come to varying conclusions regarding differential effects by subject.
  • Most of the individual sanctions in the NCLB regime—including offering students transfers, tutoring, or modest “corrective actions”—appear to have had no effect.
  • Schools forced to undergo restructuring under NCLB posted significant improvements in both reading and math scores, suggesting that leadership change is an essential component of reform in persistently low-performing schools.
  • While a pure focus on proficiency can lead to scenarios where schools divert resources from higher- or lower-performing students, complementary policies focusing on those students appear to mitigate the risk substantially.
  • State and local initiatives have taught us much about promising strategies for offering schools incentives to improve student performance. NCLB encouraged a bottom-up approach to some extent, but in the final analysis did not go far enough. In imagining “accountability 2.0,” evidence indicates that a series of modifications to the NCLB approach would improve the system:

o    Focus on test-score gains, not levels. Many states have already moved toward implementing “value-added” systems that more directly measure the progress that students make while enrolled in a school. Value-added measurement is not a panacea; it is less transparent than simple proficiency measures and introduces tricky questions about what to expect from disadvantaged students. But the benefits of using it outweigh the costs.
o    Incentivize schools, not teachers. Teacher-level value added cannot be measured for most public school teachers today, and for elementary teachers it takes multiple years of test score data to form a reliable picture of performance. Rewarding teachers for value added introduces incentives to avoid cooperating and to engage in zero-sum competition for better students. School-level incentives avoid these problems and have been shown to be equally, if not more, powerful in shifting behavior.
o    Intervene with, rather than summarily fire, underperforming teachers. Recent studies have documented effective ways of delivering performance-improving feedback to teachers on the basis of classroom observations. Recent proposals to systematically fire underperforming teachers assume the existence of a “reserve army” of competent teachers; it is not clear that any such pool exists.
o    Move local autonomy even further. NCLB relied on schools to figure out how to improve performance on their own but retained a top-down incentive structure. States and districts can play a much greater—and potentially much more effective—role in crafting rewards or punishments for schools.

  • It has been six years since NCLB expired, and there appears to be little or no momentum to reauthorize it at this time. Nonetheless, the school accountability movement is alive and well, as evidenced by the federal Race to the Top initiative and countless other state and district initiatives to more carefully scrutinize the return on investments of public dollars in the K–12 education system. The lessons learned from NCLB and other first-generation accountability systems promise to make these new efforts more productive.

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