research update

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

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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.

the grades are in

Search for your Indiana school’s 2018 A-F grades

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Indiana schools’ 2018 A-F grades were released Wednesday, and most schools have two grades this year.

One grade is the usual annual rating from the state, which is mainly based on test scores and how much scores improve. These ratings can trigger intervention for schools receiving F grades several years in a row.

The other grade, which is new this year, comes from new federal standards under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This rating looks at how public schools serve students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities.

The state measured schools more generously than the federal standards: Nearly two-thirds of schools received As or Bs under the Indiana system. About a third of schools received a higher letter grade in the state system than under federal standards.

Read more: Many Indiana schools receive F grades for how they serve students of color and those with disabilities

Read more: How many Indiana schools got As in 2018? Depends if state or feds are doing the grading.

Most schools didn’t see a change in their state grade from last year, a trend that continues because test scores remain largely stagnant.

New schools and schools that join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network can opt to be graded by the state for three years based only on how much their test scores improve — a measure known as growth — without factoring in passing rates.

Find your school’s A-F grades in our searchable database below.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.