Non-Tested Subjects: Evidence of Curriculum Narrowing

Accountability systems are designed to send signals to school administrators and educators about what is most important in creating high-quality teaching and learning experiences for students. With this kind of intentional design, the measures, labels, and consequences embedded in the accountability system create incentives for educators and officials to act in ways that reinforce what is most important and, hopefully, lead to positive student outcomes. And research shows that these incentives work—at least in terms of modifying the behavior of those who are held accountable.1

In choosing to place so much emphasis on AYP, NCLB’s accountability structures sent a signal that math and reading performance were especially important. Some evidence suggests that this pressure, coupled with the reality of operating a school or district on a limited budget, meant educators often began to focus more time on those tested subjects at the expense of others, like social studies, science, and the arts—a logical response to the incentives created by the accountability system and tough budget choices. For example, a nationally representative survey of 300 districts in 2006 by the Center on Education Policy found that 71 percent had reduced instructional time in other subjects in the wake of NCLB in order to increase time for reading and math.2 Subsequent surveys found that these changes were consequential: a 43 percent increase in time on reading and math in elementary school, on average, in districts that reported shifting instructional time, and a 32 percent decrease in non-tested subjects like science, art, music, and physical education. And districts with at least one school in NCLB improvement were more likely to engage in curriculum narrowing than those that were not facing accountability pressure.3

Similar findings emerge in other surveys of accountability systems and NCLB implementation. As education researchers Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob conclude, “the most consistent and compelling finding with regard to school accountability and classroom instruction involves the allocation of instructional time.”4 A 2003 nationally representative survey of teachers by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy found that educators in states with high-stakes testing systems (i.e. those with meaningful accountability measures attached) spent more time on tested subjects, especially in the elementary and middle grades where teachers are often responsible for multiple subjects in self-contained classrooms.5

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of curriculum narrowing comes from Dee, Jacob, and Schwartz, who used data from the nationally representative Schools and Staffing Survey of teachers and school leaders, as well as state-level data of shifting accountability policies over time (some states had accountability systems with high-stakes consequences in place pre-NCLB, while others did not). By examining elementary school principals’ and teachers’ responses about how they spent instructional time over the period of development of standards-based accountability policies, the researchers could isolate whether NCLB had a particular effect on curriculum and instructional time—comparing responses of teachers in states that had preexisting systems versus those that did not. They found that NCLB did not increase the overall amount of instructional time spent on core subjects, but teachers did reallocate this time to focus more on reading and math than other core areas, especially in states that had not previously had high-stakes accountability policies.678

While there is survey-based evidence of educators reallocating instructional time in response to NCLB and similar accountability policies, reasonable individuals can disagree on its effects—and whether this practice is more harmful, or helpful, to students. The authors of the Center on Education Policy’s 2006 survey captured the essence of this conflict, which continues among educators, public officials, families, and the public at large.9 “Some officials in case study districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessary to help low-achieving students catch up. Others feel that this practice has shortchanged students in learning important subjects, squelched creativity in teaching and learning, or diminished activities that might keep children interested in school.”2 In many respects, English language arts and mathematics are foundational subjects, containing competencies students must master in order to engage meaningfully with content in other areas, like science, history, and foreign languages. And in an era of tight budgets, districts must sometimes choose between staff and time spent on core subjects, like math and science, versus music or arts programs. But students could be missing regular opportunities to explore these subjects, which enrich their school experiences, because of the focus on tested material in the curriculum.

Given the lack of research on the effects of curriculum narrowing on student outcomes, further study is warranted. But by one measure, at least, it appears that shifts in instructional time toward math and reading may have had little effect on students’ acquisition of knowledge in non-tested content areas. Although changes to the assessment make science comparisons invalid, evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that achievement in civics and geography is virtually unchanged in grades 8 and 12 compared to the pre-NCLB era, while 4th grade achievement in both subjects actually improved. Similarly, student scores on the NAEP assessment in U.S. History significantly increased from 2001 to 2010  in grade 8, despite evidence of curriculum narrowing.11

  1. See, for example: Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, “The impact of no Child Left Behind on student achievement” J. Pol. Anal. Manage., 30: 418–446. (2011): accessed February 8, 2015,, Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb, “Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 24 (4) (2002): 305-331, and Eric A. Hanushek and Margaret E. Raymond, “Does School Accountability Lead to Improved Student Performance?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 24(2) (2005): p. 297-327, accessed February 8, 2015, Performance? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 24(2), 297-327.
  2. Diane Stark Rentner, Caitlin Scott, Nancy Kober, Naomi Chudowsky, Victor Chudowsky, Scott Joftus, and Dalia Zabala, “From the Capital to the Classroom,” Center on Education Policy (2006), accessed February 8, 2015,
  3. Jennifer McMurrer, “NCLB Year 5,” Center on Education Policy (2007), accessed February 8, 2015,
  4. Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, “The impact of no Child Left Behind on student achievement” J. Pol. Anal. Manage., 30: 418–446. (2011): accessed February 8, 2015,
  5. Joseph J. Pedulla, Lisa M. Abrams, George F. Madaus, Michael K. Russell, Miguel A. Ramos, and Jing Miao, “Perceived Effects of State-Mandated Testing Programs on Teaching and Learning: Findings from a National Survey of Teachers,” National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, March 2003, accessed May 5, 2016,
  6. Thomas S. Dee, Brian Jacob, and Nathaniel Schwarz, “The Effects of NCLB on School Resources and Practices,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, June 2013, v. 35, n. 2, 252-279. 
  7. Al Baker, “Despite Obesity Concerns, Gym Classes Are Cut,” The New York Times, July 10, 2012, accessed February 8, 2015,
  8. Arne Duncan, “Escaping the constraints of ‘No Child Left Behind,’” January 26, 2012, accessed February 8, 2015,
  9. Sam Dillon, “Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading,” The New York Times, March 26, 2006, accessed February 8, 2015,
  10. Diane Stark Rentner, Caitlin Scott, Nancy Kober, Naomi Chudowsky, Victor Chudowsky, Scott Joftus, and Dalia Zabala, “From the Capital to the Classroom,” Center on Education Policy (2006), accessed February 8, 2015,
  11. “Overall U.S. History Scores,” The Nations Report Card, accessed May 5, 2016,
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