‘No Child’ Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap

Sam Dillon, New York Times, April 29, 2009

The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation’s best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency.

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Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is “An Act to Close the Achievement Gap.”

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{snip} [T]here are now far more lower-scoring minorities in relation to whites. In 1971, the proportion of white 17-year-olds who took the reading test was 87 percent, while minorities were 12 percent. Last year, whites had declined to 59 percent while minorities had increased to 40 percent.

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The 2008 score gap between black and white 17-year-olds, 29 points in reading and 26 points in math, could be envisioned as the rough equivalent of between two and three school years’ worth of learning, said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner for assessment at the Department of Education.

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[Editor’s Note: Readers are encouraged to read the complete story here.]


American 17-year-olds aren’t performing any better in reading and math than their bell-bottom-clad counterparts in the early 1970s. That’s one conclusion from the latest round of a national test tracking long-term educational trends.

On the positive side, the test shows that younger students–9- and 13-year-olds–are making significant gains. In addition, racial differences in scores have narrowed for all three age groups over the past 30-plus years.

But overall, the mixed results parallel other indicators of how challenging it is to raise academic achievement.

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More than 26,000 students took the tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–a project overseen by the research wing of the US Department of Education. The results were released Tuesday. As part of the NAEP project, reading scores have been tracked since 1971 and math since 1973.

In the new report, long-term improvements were largest for younger age groups in math. Nine-year-olds gained 24 points since 1973, and 13-year-olds gained 15 points. In reading, the gains were 12 points and 4 points respectively since 1971. That’s on a 500-point scale, which NAEP breaks into 50-point intervals to describe the corresponding skill level.

African-American and Hispanic students have improved at greater rates than white students since the 1970s, but since 2004, they’ve made little progress in narrowing these so-called achievement gaps. In 2008, for instance, the average reading score for white 9-year-olds was 228–24 points ahead of African-Americans and 21 points ahead of Hispanics.

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NCLB critics point to various NAEP results since 2004 as an indicator of the policy’s failure to bring about real improvements and close gaps. Some observers, however, look at the fact that the younger grades have made gains, and they say it’s the outcome of a variety of policies, including NCLB, that have emphasized reading and math at those levels.

NAEP administrators caution against attributing good or bad results to any particular policy, given how many factors affect learning and how much school demographics have changed over the past few decades.

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The flat math scores among 17-year-olds happened despite the fact that larger percentages have taken higher-level math courses than in previous decades. That raises questions about whether such courses are really offering higher-level curriculum, whether the students bring the necessary math background to be successful, and whether the teaching is effective, Ms. Wilkins and others say.

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The new NAEP study is titled “The Nation’s Report Card: NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress.” This kind of NAEP test was last administered in 2004.

The results can’t be directly compared with a separate set of NAEP tests, which take a snapshot of various subjects every few years and change over time with curriculum.

[Editor’s Note: “The Nation’s Report Card: NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress” can be read on-line starting here.]

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