No Child Left Behind hasn’t been doing so well lately. Since the start of 2012, the U.S. Department of Education has given North Carolina and eighteen other states waivers to let them out of the federal school-accountability rules. Many of the provisions of No Child Left Behind haven’t worked out the way they were supposed to, says sociology grad student Michael Gaddis. But he’s found that No Child Left Behind may have done some good for North Carolina kids anyway.

Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 to make federal school funding dependent on scores on annual tests in math and reading. It’s not enough for a school to have a lot of students passing the tests. Black students, for example, need to pass. Students from families with low incomes need to pass. These are some of the kids who traditionally don’t perform as well in school, and whose academic problems can get hidden in the statistics when most of the students in a school are white or from higher-income families.

NCLB tells schools what to do when they don’t meet certain goal passing rates: offer free tutoring, let students transfer, and eventually replace staff. But in practice, Gaddis says, “the sanctions aren’t really doing anything. There’s a lot of evidence nationwide that suggests the government is getting scammed on the tutoring. And the transfer policy has a very low rate of students actually following through.” Parents often either don’t want their kids to change schools, he says, or don’t have transportation options to get the kids to a different school every day. And Gaddis says that in North Carolina, schools haven’t had to go so far as to make large changes in staff in order to keep their federal funding.

That’s why Gaddis and his faculty coauthor, public policy professor Doug Lauen, didn’t figure No Child Left Behind would be having much effect in North Carolina. But when they analyzed all of the end-of-grade test scores from grades three through eight, they found that something did change after NCLB began. When a school didn’t make what NCLB calls “adequate yearly progress” toward the goal of about 70­–75 percent of black, Hispanic, or low-income students passing a test, then those kids did a bit better the next year.

For example, take a school where less than two-thirds of Hispanic students were passing one of the end-of-grade tests. On average, the year after the school missed its goal under NCLB, Hispanic students gained 2.7 percentage points on the tests, above and beyond any gains the school was already making year-to-year before NCLB. That means something works about holding schools accountable for the performance of certain subgroups of students, Gaddis says.

“The question,” he asks, “is why? What about failing increased these students’ scores the next year?” It’s hard to know, because schools are making some of their own decisions about what to do when kids aren’t passing. Maybe teachers are simply working more intensively with certain students under the threat of losing funding if scores don’t improve.

“But there’s always the possibility that what looks like a positive outcome is negative,” Gaddis says.“If, for example, the amount of time being spent on things besides reading and math has been cut.” He says research from other states shows that reducing time on other subjects is part of what’s happening under No Child Left Behind.

When Gaddis was visiting elementary and middle schools in western North Carolina, he heard the same thing from teachers there. “They said that yes, the amount of instructional time they’re allowed to spend on other things got cut significantly,” he says. “There are science assessments in fifth and eighth grade, but they don’t count toward NCLB. So if students aren’t doing well, it’s a much smaller problem than not passing math and reading.”

Like many states, North Carolina wanted more control over how to help schools that are struggling and over what to do if the schools don’t improve. So the state applied to the U.S. Department of Education for an NCLB waiver, and got one in May 2012. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in North Carolina’s new 300-page plan for how to hold schools accountable, Gaddis says. But the state’s going to keep evaluating school success in terms of how well kids who are in racial minorities, kids from lower-income families, and kids in special education are doing. Gaddis and Lauen’s research suggests that that’s the right way to go.

North Carolina’s new plan sets different goals, though: instead of saying that 75 percent of black, Hispanic, and other groups of students have to pass the end-of-grade math test, for example, it lays out different goals for each group. The state will aim for 92 percent of Asian students to pass the test. The goal for white students is 90 percent; for black students, 71 percent. “I don’t know whether that’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing,” Gaddis says. “It would be hard to get all students passing at the same rate. But the target percentages tell you a lot about inequality in the first place.”

The plan also includes regular meetings of school administrators from different schools, so the schools that have made progress can start sharing what they’ve been doing to raise test scores.

After analyzing the effects of No Child Left Behind, Gaddis says he like to see schools judged on things besides performance on an exam. “It would be nice if we could look at college enrollment rates as a measure of success,” he says. He and Lauen are trying to get that data for all the high-school students in one county, and are finding that it’s very difficult for schools to follow what all their students do after high school. A second, more costly way to evaluate students would be on senior-year projects that would give them a portfolio of work to take with them after high school.

One part of North Carolina’s new accountability system that Gaddis says may help more students is that it isn’t just focused on passing the tests—it’ll also measure how much students’ scores are improving. That’s important, he says, to make sure that the kids who are already passing and the ones who aren’t anywhere near passing aren’t ignored in favor of the kids who just need a bit more help to reach the passing score.

North Carolina also isn’t going to focus exclusively on the low-performing schools the way NCLB did—the state’s education budget will include something for high-performing schools too. “It makes sense to add just a little bit on top to give those schools the incentive to do even better,” Gaddis says. “It gives them something so they can look at the plan and say, ‘This written for us, too.’”

S. Michael Gaddis is a grad student in the Department of Sociology and a research assistant in the Department of Public Policy in the College of Arts and Sciences. He won a 2012 Impact Award from the Graduate School’s Graduate Education Advancement Board for his research on No Child Left Behind and on the effects of peer poverty on students’ math test scores. Douglas Lauen is an assistant professor of public policy. Their NCLB study has been accepted for publication by Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.