Academic journal article Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools

Academic journal article Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT The controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) brought test-based school accountability to scale across the United States. This study draws together results from multiple data sources to identify how the new accountability systems developed in response to NCLB have influenced student achievement, school-district finances, and measures of school and teacher practices. Our results indicate that NCLB brought about targeted gains in the mathematics achievement of younger students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we find no evidence that NCLB improved student achievement in reading. School-district expenditure increased significantly in response to NCLB, and these increases were not matched by federal revenue. Our results suggest that NCLB led to increases in teacher compensation and the share of teachers with graduate degrees. We find evidence that NCLB shifted the allocation of instructional time toward math and reading, the subjects targeted by the new accountability systems.


The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is arguably the most fareaching education policy initiative in the United States over the last four decades. The hallmark features of this legislation compelled states to conduct annual student assessments linked to state standards, to identify schools that are failing to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP), and to institute sanctions and rewards based on each school's AYP status. A fundamental motivation for this reform is the notion that publicizing detailed information on school-specific test performance and linking that performance to the possibility of meaningful sanctions can improve the focus and productivity of public schools.

NCLB has been extremely controversial from its inception. Critics charge that NCLB has led educators to shift resources away from important but nontested subjects, such as social studies, art, and music, and to focus instruction within mathematics and reading on the relatively narrow set of topics that are most heavily represented on the high-stakes tests (Rothstein, Jacobsen, and Wilder 2008, Koretz 2008). In the extreme, some suggest that high-stakes testing may lead school personnel to intentionally manipulate student test scores (Jacob and Levitt 2003). Although there have been hundreds of studies of test-based accountability policies in the United States over the past two decades, the evidence on NCLB is more limited, both because it is a newer policy and because the national scope of the policy makes it extremely difficult to find an adequate control group by which to assess the national policy.

This paper examines the impact NCLB has had on students, teachers, and schools across the country. We investigate not only how NCLB has influenced student achievement, but also how it has affected education spending, instructional practice, and school organization. Given the complexity of the policy and the nature of its implementation, we are skeptical that any single analysis can be definitive. For this reason we present a broad collage of evidence and look for consistent patterns.

Several findings emerge. First, the weight of the evidence suggests that NCLB has had a positive effect on elementary student performance in mathematics, particularly at the lower grades. The benefits appear to be concentrated among traditionally disadvantaged populations, with particularly large effects among Hispanic students. We do not find evidence that the policy has adversely affected achievement at either the top or the bottom end of the test-score distribution. Instead, the policy-induced gains in math performance appear similar across the test-score distribution. However, the available evidence suggests that NCLB did not have a comparable effect on reading performance.

A closer look at the potential mechanisms behind the observed improvement provides some additional insight. For example, we find evidence that NCLB increased average school district expenditure by nearly $600 per pupil. …

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