The New State Achievement Gap: How Federal Waivers Could Make It Worse—Or Better

In this study on the potential impact of No Child Left Behind on student achievement and education inequality, analysts John Chubb and Connie Clark bite off a big topic that’s perhaps more than they can chew. First they demonstrate that the nationwide gains on the NAEP exams (in math and reading in grades four and eight) in the NCLB era (2003–11) were over twice as large as those during the pre-NCLB era (1992–2000). (By omitting 2000–03, they avoid NCLB’s transition years—which also happened to be a time of explosive progress in achievement.) Black, Hispanic, and low-income students made particularly large gains. Then Chubb and Clark turn to state-by-state differences and note that progress varied widely—ranging from almost fifty-point gains (in Maryland and D.C.) to nearly no growth or a loss (Iowa and West Virginia). Controlling for socioeconomic status and starting test scores, the analysts find a gap of forty-five scale points between the largest and smallest gainers—showcasing an oft-ignored state-to-state achievement gap, according to Chubb and Clark. From there, they take a qualitative look at ESEA waivers from states that have made lots and little progress on NAEP during the NCLB era. They conclude that being serious about reform—such as implementing tough accountability systems and benchmarking assessments against other measures of college readiness—is what makes the difference. (In fact, the authors posit that the historically high achievers have built these smart reforms into their waiver applications while the low achievers have not—a point that worries Chubb and Clark, as they see a potential for waivers to thus increase the state-to-state achievement gap.) This might be true, though different studies have identified other potential explanations for states’ improvement—which would impact recommendations for future federal accountability provisions. For instance, one by Tom Dee and Brian Jacob used as a control whether states did or did not have accountability systems in place prior to 2002 and found that the accountability provisions of NCLB generated large and statistically significant achievement increases (at least in fourth-grade math), especially among disadvantaged populations. Chubb and Clark conclude with recommendations for federal education policy: Have states either a) adopt the tried-and-true models of top-performing states (and track their implementation to continuously fine-tune best-practice approaches) or b) allow states to create flexible systems but hold them accountable to strong assessments like those of NAEP or, potentially, the Common Core. These are worthy thought experiments, indeed, even if this Ed Sector report doesn’t definitively prove why some states “raced to the top” while others lagged behind.

SOURCE: John Chubb and Constance Clark, The New State Achievement Gap: How Federal Waivers Could Make It Worse—Or Better (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, June 2013).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.