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Effects of NCLB on Student Achievement

Effects of NCLB on Student Achievement

information reprinted from NEA

There is no consensus among researchers that NCLB’s test-driven accountability system has led to increased growth in student performance or narrowed achievement gaps.

  • Analyses of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) do not show any clear trend in improved student growth after the implementation of NCLB. Instead, research has found mixed results depending on the subject (reading or math), grade level (fourth grade or eighth grade), and state. In some cases there were improved rates of growth and/or narrowed achievement gaps, but in other cases rates decreased and/or achievement gaps grew.1
  • Furthermore, a multivariate analysis of state NAEP scores from 1990-2009 established that any improved growth in NAEP scores observed after NCLB was associated with state investments in education as measured by student-teacher ratios and teacher salaries, not with the implementation of test-based accountability. The same holds true for what led to any observed narrowing of achievement gaps, although only the student-teacher ratio, not teacher salaries, was associated with improvement in this area.2
  • Another study found that NCLB led to very small narrowing of the White-Black and White-Hispanic achievement gaps in states with more segregated minority student populations and larger gaps prior to NCLB implementation. However, in less-segregated states with smaller prior gaps, both White-Black and White-Hispanic achievement gaps widened.3
  • It is important to note that any observed changes have been extremely small in scale. As one scholar noted, “Despite its intentions, there is no evidence that NCLB-style accountability has led to any substantial narrowing of achievement gaps. Although there is variation among states in the effects of NCLB, comparing the magnitude of these effects is akin to comparing the speed of different glaciers: some are retreating, some advancing, but none so fast that one would notice a meaningful difference except over a span of decades (or centuries).”4

Although rates of college attendance among Hispanic students have increased, there is no research demonstrating a causal link between this shift and No Child Left Behind.

  • Data from 2012 show that the percent of Hispanic high school graduates who immediately enrolled in college was at an all-time high, having increased from 49% in 2000 to 69% in 2012. However, Hispanic students are still less likely than White students to enroll in a four-year college, enroll full-time in college, attend a selective college, and complete a college degree.5
  • While the improvement in Hispanic college attendance is promising, research has not linked this change to No Child Left Behind, and alternative explanations have been proposed, such as:
    • a greater difficulty in finding employment (as shown in a greater rise in the unemployment rate for Hispanics than Whites during the recession), leading to a greater tendency to stay in school;6 and
    • the fact that college attendance is a high priority among Hispanics, with 88% saying that a college degree is necessary to get ahead in life today – this was higher than the rate for all Americans, which was 74%.7

Similarly, high school completion rates have increased, but there is no research demonstrating a causal link between this shift and No Child Left Behind.

  • In 2010, the average freshman graduation rate was at its highest level since 1970, having increased from 71.7% in 2001 to 78.2%. Graduation rates improved for all racial/ethnic groups, but Hispanic students improved most, and gaps in completion rates narrowed for both Blacks and Hispanics between 2006 and 2010.8
  • However, there is no compelling evidence that No Child Left Behind is responsible for these improvements. Other factors proposed as explanations for the increased high school completion rate include:
    • fewer jobs in a weak economy, which could have encouraged more students to finish their degrees; and
    • high school reforms already underway, such as smaller schools and 9th grade academies.9


1 Baker, E. L., Barton, P. E., Darling-Hammond, L., Haertel, E., Ladd, H. F., Linn, R. L., Ravitch, D., Rothstein, R., Shavelson, R. J., and Shepard, L. A. (2010, August). Problems with the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved February 20, 2015 from;
Dee, T. S., & Jacob, B. (2011, May). The impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 30, 418-446. doi: 10.1002/pam.20586 Retrieved February 18, 2015 from;
Fuller, B., Wright, J., Gesicki, K., & Kang, E. (2007, Jun-Jul). Gauging growth: How to judge No Child Left Behind?
Educational Researcher, 36, 268-278. Retrieved February 19, 2015 from;
Pallas, A. (2011, November). The Nation’s Report Card and NCLB: Friends or foes? Retrieved from;
Lee, J., & Reeves, T. (2012). Revisiting the Impact of NCLB High-Stakes School Accountability, Capacity, and Resources: State NAEP 1990-2009 Reading and Math Achievement Gaps and Trends. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34(2), 209–231;
Reardon, S. F., Greenberg, E. H., Kalogrides, D., Shores, K. A., Valentino, R. A. (2013, August). Left behind? The effect of No Child Left Behind on academic achievement gaps. Stanford, CA: Center for Education Policy Analysis. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from
2 Lee, J., & Reeves, T. (2012).
3 Reardon, S. F. et al. (2013).
4 Ibid.
5 Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2013, May). Hispanic High School Graduates Pass Whites in Rate of College Enrollment. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from
6 Ibid.
7 Pew Hispanic Center. (2013, July). Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from;
Pew Research Center. (2009, September). Recession Turns a Graying Office Grayer. Washington, DC: Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from
Cited in Fry, R., & Taylor, P. (2013, May).
8 Stillwell, R., and Sable, J. (2013). Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009–10: First Look (Provisional Data) (NCES 2013-309rev). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from
9 Adams, C. J., & Sparks, S. D. “Graduation rate reaches highest peak in decades.” Education Week, January 30, 2013. Retrieved February 24, 2015 from