Mike Petrilli and Tom Loveless take to the pages of the NY Times to argue, yet again, that No Child Left Behind has been harmful to gifted students. Their real critique is with a recent report that attempts to show, with state test trend lines, that NCLB has benefited both top and bottom students. That’s a stretch to be sure, but Mike and Tom make their own equally dubious claim:
Thankfully, there is a more suitable tool to help answer such questions: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement changes in 4th, 8th and 12th graders across the country. It found relatively little progress among our highest-achieving students (those in the top 10 percent) from 2000 to 2007, while the bottom 10 percent made phenomenal gains. For example, in eighth-grade math, the lowest-achieving students made 13 points of progress on the national-assessment scale from 2000 to 2007 — roughly the equivalent of a whole grade. Top students, however, gained just five points.
The problem comes when you start trying to pin down when exactly No Child Left Behind should be counted. Is there some sort of “NCLB-era,” as Mike and Tom ask you to believe, that started in the late 1990s and conveniently includes the large NAEP score jump between 2000 and 2003? Or should we only count data after the law was signed, in January of 2002? These are the sorts of nebulous questions one is forced to answer when trying to discern the effects of a national policy like No Child Left Behind (I’ve had some fun before dissecting the Fordham Foundation’s graphs on this exact issue).
Alternatively, we could answer Mike and Tom’s real question—how are gifted students doing?—in a more holistic way. The chart below shows NAEP score gains from 1990 to 2007 on the 8th grade mathematics exam. The top tenth of students made the exact same amount of gains as did the lowest tenth, and both made larger gains than the nation as a whole. Granted, gifted students made more steady gains while the bottom tenth made a huge leap from 2000 to 2003 (there’s that “NCLB-era” thing again!), but it’s hard to see evidence that one group is significantly better off than the other.
More importantly, it’s really hard to make the claim that a single federal policy was the determining factor, more important than demographics, teaching quality, poverty levels, curriculum, or any other variable that affects student achievement.