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.

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.