Should federally mandated school accountability and testing requirements be abandoned? With Congress actively considering a major revision of No Child Left Behind, that question has moved to the top of the national education agenda. The Obama administration, teachers unions and some Republicans are joining forces to gut core provisions of the education law that was one of the Bush administration's crowning achievements.
No Child Left Behind, which began in 2002, focused on the low performance of African-American and Hispanic students. It required that all students, no matter their race or ethnicity, reach proficiency by 2014. Since minority students had the longest road to travel, schools placed special emphasis on their instruction, and measured the quality of their instruction by ascertaining their performance on standardized tests.
Each school was required to report annual test-score results for every student in grades three through eight. (High-school students took only one test in four years.) Although all schools were tested, No Child requirements bore most heavily upon schools that received federal compensatory education dollars, which typically had substantial percentages of minority students.
In 2008, Democrats secured major contributions from teacher organizations by campaigning aggressively against No Child's testing and accountability provisions. "We can meet high-standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single high-stakes test," candidate Obama insisted.
After winning the presidency, Mr. Obama halted enforcement of most of No Child's key provisions and offered waivers to states that signed up for more lenient rules devised by the Education Department. So far, waivers have been granted to 40 states. The latest bill promoted by the Senate education committee calls for testing but allows states to let students submit "portfolios" or "projects" in lieu of the standardized tests required by the original law.
Now that No Child itself is under reconsideration, it is worth asking if the law actually worked. Did minority-student performance improve during the years when its provisions were strictly enforced? And what gains have been registered since Mr. Obama allowed enforcement to wither?
With the release this month by the National Assessment of Educational Progress of the 2012 math and reading performances of students at ages 9, 13 and 17, answers to these questions are now available. NAEP's independence and credibility has been so well-established it is now known as the nation's report card. Its long-term trend data are collected only episodically, so we cannot track student progress each year, but with the release of the latest results we now have data at three key points in time: 1999, when the Clinton administration was pushing states toward accountability; 2008, at the end of Mr. Bush's eight years in office when No Child was under bitter attack; and 2012, four years after Mr. Obama won the White House.
Many expected a rapid rise in test scores after Mr. Obama's election. Two days after his inauguration, the New York Times heralded a scholarly study that seemed to show that "the inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that . . . lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans."
A 20-question test administered to 84 black students months before the election and then again just after election day, showed a narrowing of the white-black test gap to the point of statistical insignificance. While a few doubted the study's validity, media coverage of the "Obama effect" on minority children was extensive and enthusiastic.
Given such expectations, the latest NAEP report is startling—though thus far its findings have been overlooked by the mainstream media. The degree to which a previously steady closing of the test-score gap slowed to a near halt for 9-year-olds is particularly dramatic.
During the Clinton-Bush era (1999 to 2008), white 9-year-olds gained 11 points in math, African-American student performance rose by 13 points and Hispanic student performance leaped by 21 points. In reading, the gains by white 9-year-olds went up seven points, black performance jumped by 18 points and Hispanic student achievement climbed 14 points.
Those remarkable gains came to an end after the Obama administration took charge. Between 2008-12, gains by African-Americans at age 9 were just two points in each subject, while Hispanics gained one point in reading and nothing in math. Whites gained one point in reading and two points in math.
Some might argue that this comparison is unfair to the Obama administration, as the 1999-2008 data cover nine years, while Mr. Obama had only four years to bring hope and change to American schools. To put both time periods on equivalent scales, we totaled the gains in reading and math for students at age 9 and 13, the ages when students are most subject to testing and accountability provisions. We then divided that total by the number of years over which test score gains were registered—nine years for the earlier period, four for the Obama years. The result gives us the average annual gain in student performance for each period.
For the first nine years, the average gains were six points annually for African-Americans, five points for Hispanics and three points for whites. Over that stretch, the test-score gap closed by two to three points each year, on average. While minority students did not attain the proficiency No Child Left Behind expected, the record shows steady positive momentum.
After Mr. Obama dismantled No Child, that motion came to a virtual halt and the black-white gap widened slightly. Annual gains have been limited to one-and-a-half points for blacks and to three points for Hispanic students. Whites gained two points annually, slightly (though not significantly) better than those registered by African-Americans. In other words, gains under the Obama administration by all students range between minimal and nonexistent, and the black-white gap on test scores threatens to widen after having narrowed steadily over the previous nine years.
There isn't anything positive to report about student achievement at the high-school level, since neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration placed much emphasis on student testing after eighth grade. At age 17, whites or blacks didn't gain as much as a point per year either from 1999-2008 or during the past four years.
Given these numbers, the Obama administration's current efforts to suspend accountability provisions seem entirely misguided. Instead, the White House should extend the provisions of the original No Child Left Behind law by requiring high-school students to meet similarly high standards. If we scrap student and teacher accountability, we are failing our kids.
Mr. Peterson, professor of government at Harvard University, directs its Program on Education Policy and Governance. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.