Study: No Child Left Behind Act Improved Test Scores for Language but Not for Reading, Math in Rural Alabama

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The No Child Left Behind Act has bolstered language test scores but done little to improve math and reading scores for students in rural Alabama schools, according to a new study by Auburn University and RTI International.

The study, published in the June issue of Regional and Sectoral Economic Studies, used eight years of county-level data to assess the effects of No Child Left Behind on student performance in Alabama's rural schools.

Reading and math proficiency for all students is one of the primary goals of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires states to measure student progress by conducting annual assessments. Based on the results, schools are held accountable for making adequate yearly progress toward the act's goals and receive rewards or sanctions based on their status.

The research team found that while changes to the state's school accountability system associated with No Child Left Behind had a positive effect on eighth grade test scores for language and for test score gains in language between the fourth and eighth grades, the measured effects on test scores for reading and math are mostly zero or negative.

"The results suggest that the act failed in its major objective, which was to enhance students' proficiency in math and reading," said Yuqing Zheng, Ph.D., a research economist at RTI and one of the study's co-authors.

To determine the impact of No Child Left Behind, the researchers focused on Stanford Achievement Test scores from fourth and eighth grade students in Alabama's 67 county school systems between 1999 and 2007. The scores were averages taken from all public schools in each county, exclusive of city schools.

The study found that No Child Left Behind is associated with a statewide increase in test score level for language of 3.2 percent as well as statewide declines in average reading and math test score levels of 2.6 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively.

The study focused on Alabama county schools because minorities and the economically disadvantaged – a main target of the legislation – are well represented in those districts.

"Though the findings themselves cannot be directly extended to other states, the methodology has some unique aspects, including an elegant method for accounting for the adequate yearly progress provision in the mandate," Zheng said.

The researchers also identified several variables that had a strong impact on student performance including district size, the percentage of families living in poverty, median family income and teacher pay.

"Teacher pay is a key variable affecting test scores in our model," said Zheng. "While per pupil spending increased during this time, unfortunately, teacher pay declined by 11.4 percent in real terms between the pre- and post-No Child Left Behind periods, and thus had no effect on test scores according to our results."

Highlights

  • The No Child Left Behind Act improved test scores for language, but not math and reading, for students in rural Alabama
  • The findings are the results of a study by Auburn University and RTI International
  • The study examined eight years of of county-level data to assess the effects of the act on student performance