Is NCLB Working? This Sure Doesn’t Tell Us

Yesterday the Center on Education Policy (CEP), a DC-based think tank, released a report that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings declared “confirms that No Child Left Behind has struck a chord of success with our nation’s schools and students….We know that the law is working.”

Not to rain on the secretary’s parade, but the CEP study doesn’t even come close to confirming that NCLB is working. In fact, once the authors took into account data limitations and the myriad changes that states had made to their standards and testing programs since passage of NCLB, they had usable pre- and post-NCLB achievement data – which is essential for getting any idea if NCLB is working – for only 13 states, and were able to make complete analyses for only seven. In addition, the authors noted that:

We cannot say to what extent test scores have gone up because of NCLB. It is always difficult to tease out a cause-and-effect relationship between test score trends and any specific education policy or program. With all the federal, state, and local reforms that have been implemented simultaneously since 2002, it becomes nearly impossible to sort out which policy or combination of policies is responsible for test score gains, and to what degree.

So Spellings declared a report in which the authors were only able to get complete data for seven states, and made quite clear that their findings are absolutely not proof that NCLB is working, as confirmation that the law is working.

Feel like you’ve heard this before?

Of course you do, because this has been the standard Bush administration response to almost any news in education since NCLB was passed. Either new studies or achievement results have been proof that the law is working, or proof that we need to expand the law. But as I and others have pointed out numerous times, the best, most straightforward evidence that we have about NCLB suggests that the law is not working. The National Assessment of Educational Progress – which evaluates American students on consistent tests, not the constantly changing and gamed state assessments driven by NCLB – has shown stagnant or dropping reading scores in the period covered by NCLB, and slowing growth in math scores.

Now, just as the CEP findings are far from proof that NCLB is working, the NAEP scores aren’t proof that NCLB is a failure. They are, however, clear evidence that no one who is even remotely objective could say that NCLB is a proven success. Yet the U.S. Secretary of Education has repeatedly been doing exactly that.

And people wonder why, when given the opportunity, so many parents jump at the chance to leave government schools behind.