Looking Back to Look Forward: Quantitative and Qualitative Reviews of the Past 20 Years of K-12 Education Assessment and Accountability Policy


March 28, 2023


To effectively engage in the next era of education policy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the business community broadly need to know what recent history has taught us. Two years ago, we realized we could not answer this critical question: after the last twenty years of education reform, what has worked and what has not? As tireless advocates for high-quality academic standards, assessments, and accountability as tools for educational equity, this was a “drop everything” moment.

We decided to embark on an ambitious venture—to create the most comprehensive analysis to date of existing research and qualitative feedback on federal K-12 education policies of the past 20 years from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The full report—a quantitative research review authored by Dan Goldhaber and Michael DeArmond of CALDER at the American Institutes for Research and a qualitative analysis authored by Chris Stewart and his team at brightbeam—are the result of our collective effort.

The report asks: what can we learn from the last two decades of education policy, and what do we still not know? According to what Goldhaber and DeArmond identify as the most credible existing studies, the report highlights the following:

  • Disaggregated data shifted the focus from the average kid to every kid—including Black, Hispanic, low-income students, English learners, and students with special needs. No longer were school districts able to hide the performance of some students behind an average.
  • Student achievement increased due to NCLB-era assessment and accountability policies, especially in math and especially for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students, who the system had not been serving well.
  • There is now access to far more reliable, comparable education data than there would be available otherwise, though there has not been sufficient time dedicated to rigorous analysis.
  • Reforms in teacher evaluation and school turnaround initiatives did not consistently improve student outcomes at scale, in part due to significant variation in quality of implementation.

However, existing research and data has not answered other critical questions, including:

  • Did schools serving historically underserved students get more money to improve than they otherwise would have?
  • If identified schools did get more money, what did they do with it?
  • How many identified low-performing schools became successful?
  • Have states seen improvement in measures other than academics, such as chronic absenteeism or school climate, that the Every Student Succeeds Act was also intended to elevate?

Learn about how the last two decades of education policy can inform how we plan for our students' futures.