Report: Mixed Grades for No Child Left Behind

The 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, was released today for reading and math in fourth and eighth grade—and what it tells us about our children's abilities in mathematics and reading is bound to add fuel to the already contentious debate about No Child Left Behind.

"Student achievement is on the rise," says Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. "No Child Left Behind is working. It's doable, reasonable and necessary. Any efforts to weaken accountability would fly in the face of rising achievement."

Since the law was enacted in 2001, many schools, particularly poor ones, have been turned into boot camps that focus instruction on reading and math. Critics of the law complain that it is too harsh, too inflexible and is forcing schools to narrow their curriculum—giving up science, social studies, physical education and recess in favor of reading and math instruction.

At least in math, though, that narrow focus seems to be paying off. In fourth grade, overall mathematics scores have risen from 226 in 2000 to 240 in 2007. The gap between black and white students, which was 31 points in 2000, has narrowed to 26. Eighth-graders made similar gains, with math scores rising from 273 in 2000 to 281 in 2007. White students are scoring slightly better, but black and Hispanic students have made larger improvements and are narrowing the gap.

"What we're seeing is sustained positive change," says Jim Rubillo, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "The message we take away from these scores is, "Let's keep at it!'"

The reading scores of our nation's schoolchildren, though, tell another, more disquieting story. Much of the focus of No Child Left Behind has been on the early years. Correspondingly, reading scores for fourth-graders have gone up from 213 in 2000 to 221 in 2007, and the gap between white students and black and Hispanic kids have narrowed slightly. So far, so good. What troubles experts, though, is that gains in reading achievement are not being sustained as children age. Reading scores in eighth grade have remained about the same—and the gap between white middle-schoolers and black and Hispanic middle-schoolers (a significant 27 and 24 points, respectively) isn't budging. "What these scores tell us is that in the places we have expended the time, attention and resources in reading, among our youngest kids, we've seen a payoff," says Tim Shanahan, former president of the International Reading Association. "But what we're doing to meet the reading needs of older children is not enough."

It wasn't supposed to work this way. When the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed in 2001 it required schools to ensure that all students reach proficiency in reading and math by 2013. Schools where children fail to reach grade level in those subjects face penalties. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars went to support reading instruction in poor schools in the early years. The idea was that children who were exposed to the right kind of reading instruction, and plenty of it, would "get the basics" and then go on to show sustained gains in achievement as they matured. And while that theory appears to hold true with mathematics, schoolchildren don't seem to be building on their success in reading. If we want to see sustained gains in reading, experts suggest, the reach of the already controversial law may need to be extended—forcing middle-school teachers to put the same kind of focus on reading as teachers have in elementary schools.

Which would be fine with Spellings. Last week she traveled across the Midwest on a tour bus painted school-bus yellow, drumming up support for No Child Left Behind from parents, teachers, principals and business leaders. The Department of Education data supports the notion that the law is closing the achievement gap, she says.

"Is it a perfect law?" she asks. "No. Can we improve it? Yes, we can. But we can't back away."

Administrators from poor schools like Watterson-Lake in Cleveland, which is charged with educating the children from a poor community in a ravaged city, say that No Child Left Behind—and the high-stakes testing that comes along with the state testing, is helping. Teachers understand what material they're responsible for covering in the classroom, and rigid standards force them to intervene quickly when a student begins to struggle. "Yes, testing is a huge part of our curriculum. Yes, we teach to the test," says principal Caren Geissinger. "But I don't have negative feelings about that. I think we do a better job of educating kids. Ten years ago you couldn't ask kids about the function of government or the names of the presidents. They didn't know. Now Ohio demands we teach social studies, and you better believe it, all our kids know it!"

The only thing that will stop the controversy, though, would be a straight-A report card for the nation. And that, it seems, is far in the future.