How Student Achievement Gaps Are Growing in Your State

March 6, 2024

On February 9, 2012, President Barack Obama announced waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for states, allowing them more flexibility in exchange for reforms in standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations. This marked a significant shift from NCLB’s strict accountability measures, which required schools to make “adequate yearly progress” for all student groups. While NCLB had led to modest but widespread gains in student performance, such as an 8-point improvement in eighth-grade math from 2003 to 2013, Obama’s policy relaxation contributed to a subsequent decline in student achievements across the country. By the time the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed in 2015, achievement scores had already started to fall, with the largest declines among the lowest-performing 10% of students. This trend of widening achievement gaps was observed not just in math but also in reading, history, and civics, affecting nearly all states and major cities.

Source: The 74

The decline in student performance has been attributed to the softening of NCLB’s accountability pressures. Research highlighted the positive impact of accountability systems on student achievements, particularly among the lowest performers. For instance, New York City’s A-F school rating system significantly boosted student achievement until it was abandoned in 2014, leading to a reversal of gains. Other theories for the decline include economic factors, the influence of technology, and the shift to Common Core state standards, but these do not fully align with the timing or magnitude of the declines. Despite increasing education spending in many states, achievement scores continued to fall, suggesting that factors other than economic conditions were at play.

The widening achievement gaps in the U.S. indicates a need to revisit accountability measures. School board members are uniquely positioned to ensure the level of accountability necessary, not only to address these achievement gaps, but also to bring meaningful reforms and excellence back to education. The evidence suggests that holding school systems accountable is effective in improving student outcomes, which once again drives home the importance of accountability in education policy.

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