testing accountability

Pressuring schools to raise test scores got diminishing returns, new study of No Child Left Behind finds

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

Does tightening the screws on schools and teachers lead to benefits for students?

For the past couple of decades, school reform efforts have assumed that the answer is yes. Setting ambitious goals, and putting pressure on schools to reach them, would push students ahead. And past research has shown that math scores rose as more states began threatening and sanctioning schools with low test scores in the 2000s.

But a new study shows that continuing to “raise the bar” during the No Child Left Behind era only had a modest effect at best. That raises questions about whether the small gains were worth the political controversy, and what critics claim were the educational costs, of putting a greater focus on test scores.

“These results suggest that the ratcheting [up] of test-based accountability pressures alone is not enough to sustain improvements in student achievement,” conclude researchers Vivian Wong, Coady Wing, David Martin, and Anandita Krishnamachari.

Their paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on the several years after the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002. The law — which passed with bipartisan support but would eventually draw bipartisan ire — required states to test students annually and set goals for schools. Schools that didn’t meet them faced sanctions.

States each set their own targets using different tests. But the researchers attempted to ask the same questions of each state: How hard was it for each school to hit its goals, and how did that change between 2003 and 2011? Then, they looked at how students did on the National Assessment for Educational Progress. Did states see larger gains on the federal low-stakes test after making life tougher on schools?

In many states, it really did become harder and harder for schools to measure up. In 2008, Education Week noted that California’s school failure rate jumped from 34 to 48 percent between 2007 and 2008. In Vermont, the climb was even steeper: from 12 percent of schools failing to 37 percent.

This added pressure, the authors conclude, seemed to lead to national gains in eighth grade math and reading. But the effect was tiny: about half a point in both subjects. (For comparison’s sake, the difference in performance between white and black students in eighth grade math was 32 points on the latest test.)

“Though they find positive effects, like everyone in this literature, they are small [effects],” Tom Dee, a Stanford education professor.

That said, the gains were largest for certain disadvantaged groups: English language learners, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students who started at the lowest levels of performance.

There was no evidence of higher standards causing any improvements in fourth grade math or reading.

If this shows that raising the bar doesn’t do much, though, past research has shown that just having a bar can make a big difference.

In states that didn’t have accountability systems at all before No Child Left Behind, creating them led to big gains on national low-stakes math tests: 8 points in fourth grade and 5 points in eighth grade, according to a study from Dee.

Together, this research bolsters a theory known as the “accountability plateau” — that creating tougher rules boost performance, but ratcheting up the pressure leads to diminishing returns.

“It seems like when you implement an accountability system there’s an initial bump, but after that continued gains are hard to come by,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at the University of Southern California who has studied standards and accountability systems.

Dee was more skeptical of this idea. Schools’ goals were getting harder and harder to reach just as criticism of the law was cresting and politicians were considering changes.  

“Districts may have understood it was a nudge and a wink and it didn’t really have teeth,” he said of the law.

No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, takes a different tack. Instead of giving each state discretion in how many schools are identified as failing and requiring them to ramp up the consequences over time, the law requires each state to identify 5 percent of schools as low-performing.

The latest study suggests that might be a preferable approach if states are able to figure out better ways to help a small group of struggling schools improve. Turnaround efforts — including a prominent federal program backed by a lot of money — have often produced disappointing results.

“It remains unclear how states will implement ESSA,” write the researchers. “But the federal law will likely not succeed if performance requirements are not accompanied by additional support for educators.”

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.

next steps

Adams 14 pledges ‘transformational change’ as Colorado revisits school improvement plans

Aris Mocada-Orjas, left, and Abel Albarran work on a math problem at Hanson Elementary in Commerce City. (Denver Post file photo)

Two Colorado school districts face critical hearings this fall that will determine how much autonomy they’ll retain after failing to turn around years of dismal performance.

Two schools in the Pueblo 60 district in southern Colorado, Adams City High School, and the entire Adams 14 district based in Commerce City are now in their eighth year on a state watchlist and will need to come back before the State Board of Education in November to explain why improvement plans approved last year didn’t generate the hoped-for progress in student achievement.

These hearings will mark the first time state officials revisit the school and district improvement plans. While state takeover isn’t on the table, as it has been in other states, they could tell school administrators to keep working on their plans, make small tweaks, or order more drastic intervention, including closing schools, turning over management to outside organizations or even dissolving districts, though that last option would be politically challenging.

A spokesman for the Adams 14 district said leaders there recognize they need to make “transformational change.”

“We will have to prove to the state board that we are serious this time,” said Alex Sanchez, the district spokesman. “We’ve been at this eight years, and we need to be reflective of those eight years and make sure we are moving forward with an actual plan that will truly address the needs of Adams 14 children.”

The Colorado Department of Education released preliminary school ratings based on spring test scores and other data late last month. Adams 14 remained on “priority improvement,” the second lowest tier in the state’s five-tiered rating system for districts.

Through multiple school boards and three superintendents, the district did not meet promises to raise scores enough to escape from the state’s watchlist — also known as the accountability clock. The State Board of Education last year gave Adams 14 just one year to demonstrate progress. Most other schools and districts on the list got at least two years to see if their plans yielded better outcomes.

In test scores and then ratings released in August, Adams 14 showed some areas of improvement, but not enough to raise the state’s overall rating for the district.

Schools and districts can appeal their ratings, and they don’t become final until December.

Adams 14 may appeal the ratings of up to three schools, and that could change the district’s overall rating. But Sanchez said Superintendent Javier Abrego, his new leadership team, and the school board recognize that the district needs to make large-scale changes regardless of the outcome of those appeals.

“It’s not about going after a decimal of a point here and there,” Sanchez said. “We really need to address the hard realities.”

State education officials don’t want to wait too long before looking at next steps for struggling schools and districts.

“We’re moving forward,” Colorado Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Alyssa Pearson told the state board earlier this month.

Colorado Department of Education

A state review panel will visit Adams 14 schools and make recommendations by October. The state also plans to solicit written feedback from community members before the next hearing.

State accountability officials want the state board to render a decision on the same day as the hearing.

The quick turnaround is intended to allow plenty of planning time if the state board wants to order more substantial changes. The first time the state board reviewed improvement plans, in spring 2017, it largely accepted districts’ proposals and shied away from more aggressive interventions.

But some board members complained that the short time frame essentially gave them no choice. How, for example, were they to order turning over school management to a charter organization for the next school year if no potential operator had been identified in the spring?

Will the state board press for more changes this time? That remains to be seen. State board member Jane Goff asked skeptically if her fellow board members want districts to “start from scratch” and suggested these meetings would be a “check-in” rather than a full hearing.

Board member Val Flores said pushing for too much change can hurt kids.

“We want change for the better, but change can hurt — and the people who hurt the most are kids,” she said. “We can’t hurry along a process that is going to take time.”

The improvement plan for the 7,500-student Adams 14 district includes a partnership with Beyond Textbooks, an Arizona-based nonprofit now also working in the Sheridan district. The nonprofit’s role in Adams 14 includes training teachers to help students reach state standards and to better work with students who don’t grasp material the first time, as well as train coaches for teachers.

The improvement plan was partly tied to a biliteracy program that the district has put on hold, a source of ongoing disagreement and frustration in the district, which has one of the highest percentages of English language learners in the state.

The pressures of turnaround work have frayed relationships with the community and with district staff, with parents pushing back against the loss of the biliteracy program, cuts to recess, and other changes. The top leadership team saw extensive turnover in the past year, and the board president resigned.

Communication has not always been smooth either. State officials went to Adams 14 board meetings throughout the year to provide updates, often alerting the school board that the district was not on track to meet targets. School board members were sometimes surprised to hear the news. After hearing the concerns of one state official at a meeting in February, board members argued about whose responsibility it was to keep up progress toward the state-ordered plan.

Sanchez said district officials and board members know they need to work with the state and that the district may need outside help to make big changes.

“Moving forward, we have to think big, we have to think bold, we have to think transformational change,” he said. “It will take many resources and many strategic partners to get that work done.”

Chair Angelika Schroeder said the state board will be focused on the needs of students.

“Poor education hurts kids,” she said. “The kids are why we’re thinking about intervening in a district.”

Reporter Yesenia Robles contributed.