The Arcane Rules That Drive Outcomes Under NCLB

Posted by on April 22, 2013

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

A big part of successful policy making is unyielding attention to detail (an argument that regular readers of this blog hear often). Choices about design and implementation that may seem unimportant can play a substantial role in determining how policies play out in practice.

A new paper, co-authored by Elizabeth Davidson, Randall Reback, Jonah Rockoff and Heather Schwartz, and presented at last month’s annual conference of The Association for Education Finance and Policy, illustrates this principle vividly, and on a grand scale: With an analysis of outcomes in all 50 states during the early years of NCLB.

After a terrific summary of the law’s rules and implementation challenges, as well as some quick descriptive statistics, the paper’s main analysis is a straightforward examination of why the proportion of schools meeting AYP varied quite a bit between states. For instance, in 2003, the first year of results, 32 percent of U.S. schools failed to make AYP, but the proportion ranged from one percent in Iowa to over 80 percent in Florida.

Surprisingly, the results suggest that the primary reasons for this variation seem to have had little to do with differences in student performance. Rather, the big factors are subtle differences in rather arcane rules that each state chose during the implementation process. These decisions received little attention, yet they had a dramatic impact on the outcomes of NCLB during this time period. Read More »

Annual Measurable Objections

Posted by on November 5, 2012

As states’ continue to finalize their applications for ESEA/NCLB “flexibility” (or “waivers”), controversy has arisen in some places over how these plans set proficiency goals, both overall and for demographic subgroups (see our previous post about the situation in Virginia).

One of the underlying rationales for allowing states to establish new targets (called “annual measurable objectives,” or AMOs) is that the “100 percent” proficiency goals of NCLB were unrealistic. Accordingly, some (but not all) of the new plans have set 2017-18 absolute proficiency goals that are considerably below 100 percent, and/or lower for some subgroups relative to others. This shift has generated pushback from advocates, most recently in Florida, who believe that lowering state targets is tantamount to encouraging or accepting failure.

I acknowledge the central role of goals in any accountability system, but I would like to humbly suggest that this controversy, over where and how states set proficiency targets for 2017-18, may be misguided. There are four reasons why I think this is the case (and one silver lining if it is). Read More »

NCLB And The Institutionalization Of Data Interpretation

Posted by on October 10, 2012

It is a gross understatement to say that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is, was – and will continue to be – a controversial piece of legislation. Although opinion tends toward the negative, there are certain features, such as a focus on student subgroup data, that many people support. And it’s difficult to make generalizations about whether the law’s impact on U.S. public education was “good” or “bad” by some absolute standard.

The one thing I would say about NCLB is that it has helped to institutionalize the improper interpretation of testing data.

Most of the attention to the methodological shortcomings of the law focuses on “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) – the crude requirement that all schools must make “adequate progress” toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. And AYP is indeed an inept measure. But the problems are actually much deeper than AYP.

Rather, it’s the underlying methods and assumptions of NCLB (including AYP) that have had a persistent, negative impact on the way we interpret testing data. Read More »

Assessing Ourselves To Death

Posted by on October 4, 2012

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

I have two points to make. The first is something that I think everyone knows: Educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success.

For example, it is well-documented that high school graduates earn more, on average, than non-graduates. Thus, one often hears arguments that increasing graduation rates will drastically improve students’ future prospects, and the performance of the economy overall. Well, not exactly.

The piece of paper, of course, only goes so far. Rather, the benefits of graduation arise because graduates are more likely to possess the skills – including the critical non-cognitive sort – that make people good employees (and, on a highly related note, because employers know that, and use credentials to screen applicants).

We could very easily increase the graduation rate by easing requirements, but this wouldn’t do much to help kids advance in the labor market. They might get a few more calls for interviews, but over the long haul, they’d still be at a tremendous disadvantage if they lacked the required skills and work habits. Read More »


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