NCLB: Putting Swine before PIRLS?

At least among education wonk-ish types, it’s well known that on national and international assessments American students perform best in 4th grade, decline by 8th grade, and do dismally in high school. Well yesterday a report was released—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)—which hinted that even our vaunted 4th graders might be losing ground. And this despite the fact that since 2002 the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has “demanded” good results starting in the 3rd grade.

There is, it should be noted, a bit of good news in PIRLS: Our kids scored above the PIRLS average—set at a “scale score” of 500—in both 2001 and 2006. But then, one would expect our kids to perform above average since we are the world’s leading economic power and, according to the PIRLS report, our gross national income (GNI) per-capita, after adjusting for purchasing power, was surpassed by only Norway and Luxembourg among PIRLS participants.

And then there’s the bad news. It starts with our average score dropping a tad between 2001 and 2006, going from 542 to 540. Worse, several countries and territories we’d beaten in 2001, including Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, surpassed us in 2006. And we can’t blame poverty for our problems: None of the places that moved ahead of us, at least as measured by GNI, are as well off as we are economically.

Importantly, the analytical limitations of average scores, and the generally small changes seen between 2001 and 2006, make PIRLS far from a final word on either NCLB or the general progress (or lack thereof) of American education. However, when coupled with other recent testing results, PIRLS adds to an increasingly clear conclusion about NCLB: the law is at best having no positive impact on American education, and is very likely having a negative one.