Expert Commentary

No Child Left Behind and education outcomes: Research roundup

Studies analyzing the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on student and school performance.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was intended to promote higher levels of performance in U.S. public education by tying a school’s federal funding directly to student achievement as measured by standardized test scores. Ten years after its implementation, however, research on NCLB suggests that the achievement levels of the nation’s students, teachers and school districts remain significantly below established benchmarks. In August 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, describing the Act as “a slow-motion train wreck,” suspended the requirement that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014, and invited states to apply for a waiver of NCLB’s proficiency requirements.

The following studies analyze issues related to NCLB, and look at the law’s effects on student and school performance.


“The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Student Achievement”

Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2011

Findings: “Our results indicate that NCLB generated statistically significant increases in the average math performance of fourth graders … as well as improvements at the lower and top percentiles. There is also evidence of improvements in eighth-grade math achievement, particularly among traditionally low-achieving groups and at the lower percentiles. However, we find no evidence that NCLB increased fourth-grade reading achievement.”


“Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education”

U.S. National Research Council, 2011

Findings: “Test-based incentive programs, as designed and implemented in the programs that have been carefully studied, have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries. When evaluated using relevant low-stakes tests, which are less likely to be inflated by the incentives themselves, the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs. Even when evaluated using the tests attached to the incentives, a number of programs show only small effects.”


“Performance Effects of Failure to Make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Framework”

Economics of Education Review, 2011

Findings: “Using panel data on Maryland elementary and middle schools from 2003 through 2009, I find that the scope of failure matters: Academic performance suffers in the short run in response to school-wide failure. However, schools that meet achievement targets for the aggregate student group, yet fail to meet at least one demographic subgroup’s target see between 3 and 6 percent more students in the failing subgroup score proficiently in the following year, compared to if no accountability pressure were in place.”


“Exacerbating Inequality: The Failed Promise of the No Child Left Behind Act” (PDF)

Race Ethnicity and Education, 2007

Findings:NCLB received and continues to receive support, in part because it promises to improve student learning and to close the achievement gap between White students and students of color. However, NCLB has failed to live up to its promises and may exacerbate inequality. Furthermore, by focusing on education as the solution to social and economic inequality, it diverts the public’s attention away from the issues such as poverty, lack of decent paying jobs and health care, that need to be confronted if inequality is to be reduced.”


“The No Child Left Behind Act: Have Federal Funds Been Left Behind? (PDF)

Public Finance Review, 2008

Findings: “We find that new federal funding is sufficient to support very low standards for student performance, but cannot come close to funding high standards without implausibly large increases in school-district efficiency… [S]tates have a strong incentive to keep their standards low.”


“Gauging Growth: How to Judge No Child Left Behind?” (PDF)

Educational Researcher, 2007

Findings: “Focusing on the performance of fourth graders, where gains have been strongest since the early 1970s, the authors find that earlier test score growth has largely faded since enactment of NCLB in 2002. Gains in math achievement have persisted in the post-NCLB period, albeit at a slower rate of growth. Performance in many states continues to apparently climb. But the bar defining proficiency is set much lower in most states, compared with the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] definition, and the disparity between state and federal results has grown since 2001. Progress seen in the 1990s in narrowing achievement gaps has largely disappeared in the post-NCLB era.”


Tags: children, schools, research roundup, campaign issue, youth

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