research update

Suspensions really do hurt students academically, new studies confirm, but maybe less than previously thought

(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

A student who gets suspended does worse in school. That connection worries many policymakers, and it’s driven a wave of changes meant to cut down on the number of students sent out of their school buildings for breaking rules.

But there’s been little reliable evidence that suspensions are the true cause of poor test scores or dismal graduation rates. Perhaps students who get suspended would have had academic trouble regardless. Perhaps suspensions themselves set students on a negative trajectory. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

It’s a timely question, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is still weighing whether to rescind an Obama-era directive on school discipline. Designed to reduce disparities, that guidance argues that suspensions generally hurt students.

Now, we’re closer to some answers.

Three of four recent studies on the topic provide some of the strongest evidence yet that suspensions do in fact harm students’ academic performance. But they also suggest that the consequences of a suspension, at least as measured by test scores, are less severe than previously thought.

Researchers have “been very good at documenting disparities, period; I think we are less sure of the causes and the consequences,” said Constance Lindsay, a researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied school discipline. “These new studies are definitely moving the needle forward.”

Those four studies compare the same students before and after a suspension — a different method than most past research. Older research has typically contrasted suspended students to similar students who aren’t suspended, an approach with significant limitations.

To be clear, comparing students to themselves over time isn’t a perfect method, either. If a student experiences a traumatic event between third and fourth grade, for instance, they might be more likely to be suspended and also less likely to do well on a state test in fourth grade. This method can’t fully account for that.

This is also just one piece of the discipline debate. Other important issues include whether well-documented disparities in who gets suspended are due to discrimination, how suspensions affect non-suspended students, and whether alternative discipline approaches are effective.

So what have these four new studies found? We’ll walk through them one by one.

In Philadelphia, suspensions are linked to lower test scores

One study, published last week, focuses on third through 12th-graders in Philadelphia district schools from the 2011-12 school year to 2013-14.

It shows that students’ test scores are lower in years that they were suspended. The results suggest students’ chances of scoring proficient on the state math exam fall by about 2 percentage points if they were suspended. And the more days a student was suspended, the more their test scores fell.

Researchers Johanna Lacoe and Matthew Steinberg called these effects “educationally significant” but also “much more modest that what is found in existing research.”

There was no effect on test scores in the year following a suspension or on absences the month after.

The researchers also try a completely different method to confirm their results: using a policy change in Philadelphia to compare suspended students to students who would have otherwise been suspended, but were not. They find, again, that suspensions cause small declines in achievement.

In a California suburb, multiple suspensions depress test scores

This paper, published in May, looks at seventh through 11th-graders in an anonymous suburban California school district between the 2009-10 and 2011-12 school years.

A single suspension didn’t have clear effects. But it shows that being suspended out of school more than once led to substantial drops in test scores. (Students suspended more than once, though, accounted for only a very small fraction of those in the sample.)

Students who received multiple in-school suspensions saw their scores fall in English but not math.

Like the prior study, this one compares the same students before and after they were suspended; it is also able to track students more closely by looking at test scores quarter by quarter.

In Arkansas, suspensions don’t hurt — and may help — students one year later

This 2017 analysis, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, focuses on all K-12 public schools in Arkansas from the 2008-09 school year to 2013-14.

Suspensions had either no effect or a small positive effect on students’ test scores in the year after they were suspended. Those gains grew the more days students were suspended, and the effects were larger for students of color.

The positive effects seen in this paper were very small — generally smaller that the negative effects shown in the Philadelphia study.

The big limitation is that it looks at the year after a suspension takes place, when you would expect the academic consequences to be felt in the year of the suspension. Other researchers have focused on this point when raising questions about this study’s approach.

Suspensions lower pass rates in New York City

This peer-reviewed study from June looks at a group of New York City high school students, starting in 2005 when they are ninth graders and tracking them through 2011.

Suspensions seemed to have modest, but notable, consequences, as Chalkbeat previously reported.

Suspended students were 3 and 4 percentage points less likely to pass math class and English class, respectively, compared to semesters when those same students weren’t suspended; they were also absent one more day in those semesters.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: