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Standards, accountability, assessment, and curriculum
COVID-19 upended schooling across the United States, but with what consequences for the state-level institutions that drive most education policy? This paper reports findings on two related research questions. First, what were the most important ways state government education policymakers changed schools and schooling from the moment they began to reckon with the seriousness of COVID-19 through the first full academic year of the pandemic? Second, how deep did those changes go – are there indications the pandemic triggered efforts to make lasting changes in states’ education policymaking institutions? Using multiple-methods research focused on Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oregon, we documented policies enacted during the period from March 2020 through June 2021 across states and across sectors (traditional and choice) in three COVID-19-related education policy domains: school closings and reopenings, budgeting and resource allocation, and assessment and accountability systems. We found that states quickly enacted radical changes to policies that had taken generations to develop. They mandated sweeping school closures in Spring 2020, and then a diverse array of school reopening policies in the 2020/2021 school year. States temporarily modified their attendance-based funding systems and allocated massive federal COVID-19 relief funds. Finally, states suspended annual student testing, modified the wide array of accountability policies and programs linked to the results of those tests, and adapted to new assessment methods. These crisis-driven policy changes deeply disrupted long-established patterns and practices in education. Despite this, we found that state education governance systems remained resilient, and that at least during the first 16 months of the pandemic, stakeholders showed little interest in using the crisis to trigger more lasting institutional change. We hope these findings enable state policymakers to better prepare for future crises.
The improvement of low-performing school systems is one potential strategy for mitigating educational inequality. Some evidence suggests districtwide reform may be more effective than school-level change, but limited research examines district-level turnaround. There is also little scholarship examining the effects of turnaround reforms on outcomes beyond the first few years of implementation, on outcomes beyond test scores, or on the effectiveness of efforts to replicate district improvement successes beyond an initial reform context. We study these topics in Massachusetts, home to the Lawrence district representing a rare case of demonstrated improvements in the early years of state takeover and turnaround and where state leaders have since intervened in three other contexts as a result. We use statewide student-level administrative data (2006-07 to 2018-19) and event study methods to estimate medium-term reform impacts on test and non-test outcomes across four Massachusetts-based contexts: Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield, and Southbridge. We find substantial district improvement was possible although sustaining the rate of gains was more complicated. Replicating gains in new contexts was also possible but not guaranteed.
Although existing research suggests that students benefit on a range of outcomes when they enroll in early algebra classes, policy efforts that accelerate algebra enrollment for large numbers of students often have negative effects. Explanations for this apparent contradiction often emphasize the potential role of teacher and peer effects, which could create positive effects for individual students placed into early algebra that would not translate to larger-scale policies. We use detailed data from Oregon that contain information on the teachers and peers to whom students are exposed in order to investigate these explanations. Our regression discontinuity analyses replicate key findings from prior studies, indicating that placement in eighth-grade algebra boosts student achievement in math and English language arts. We then demonstrate that eighth-grade algebra placement positively affects the achievement level of students’ classmates, as well as the years of experience and value added of students’ math teachers. The effects on peer composition that we observe are large enough to plausibly explain the majority of the effects of eighth-grade algebra on student test scores.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) began a new wave of school accountability under which states draw on multiple measures to assess school quality. States have options in terms of how to weight components in their school quality indices and how many years of data to use to determine school ratings. In this study, we simulate school ratings using eight years of administrative data in North Carolina to demonstrate how state decisions about school ratings and identification influence school ratings and the list of schools identified for improvement. We then evaluate these decisions against a framework that considers the validity, stability, and equity of the ratings, underscoring the inherent tradeoffs that come with each. We show that while a system that weights proficiency more heavily than growth produces more stable school ratings, identifying schools based on multiple years of performance data instead of one more than offsets the loss of stability in shifting to a growth measure. We conclude with recommendations for state accountability systems under ESSA and for federal policymaking moving forward.
The recent spike in book challenges has put school libraries at the center of heated political debates. I investigate the relationship between local politics and school library collections using data on books with controversial content in 6,631 public school libraries. Libraries in conservative areas have fewer titles with LGBTQ+, race/racism, or abortion content and more Christian fiction and discontinued Dr. Seuss titles. This is true even though most libraries have at least some controversial content. I also find that state laws that restrict curricular content are negatively related to some kinds of controversial books. Finally, I present descriptive short-term evidence that book challenges in the 2021-22 school year have had “chilling effects” on the acquisition of new LGBTQ+ titles.
In response to widening achievement gaps and increased demand for post-secondary education, local and federal governments across the US have enacted policies that have boosted high school graduation rates without an equivalent rise in student achievement, suggesting a decline in academic standards. To the extent that academic standards can shape effort decisions, these trends can have important implications for human capital accumulation. This paper provides both theoretical and empirical evidence of the causal effect of academic standards on student effort and achievement. We develop a theoretical model of endogenous student effort that depends on grading policies, finding that designs that do not account for either the spread of student ability or the magnitude of leniency can increase achievement gaps. Empirically, under a research design that leverages variation from a statewide grading policy and school entry rules, we find that an increase in leniency mechanically increased student GPA without increasing student achievement. At the same time, this policy induced students to increase their school absences. We uncover stark heterogeneity of effects across student ability, with the gains in GPA driven entirely by high ability students and the reductions in attendance driven entirely by low ability students. These differences in responses compound across high school and ultimately widen long-term achievement gaps as measured by ACT scores.
This study contributes to the science of teaching reading by illustrating how a ubiquitous classroom practice – read alouds – can be enhanced by fostering teacher language practices that support students’ ability to read for understanding. This experimental study examines whether and to what extent providing structured teacher read aloud supplements in a social studies read aloud can allow students to leverage a familiar science schema and thereby positively impact reading comprehension outcomes. Treatment students received a single social studies read-aloud on the story of Apollo 11 with structured teacher read aloud supplements while control students received the same read-aloud story but without structured supplements. Effect sizes from hierarchical linear models indicated that students in the treatment condition significantly outperformed students in the control condition on four measures of domain-specific reading comprehension. Further exploratory analyses using structural equation modeling examined the extent that teacher language mediated the treatment effect. Results indicated that teachers going above and beyond the intervention script explained 67 percent of the treatment effect. Structured supplements for read alouds can help students see important connections between schemas, which ultimately aids in reading comprehension.
Public schools are currently a source of major political conflict, specifically with regard to issues related to LGBT representation in the curriculum. We report on a large nationally representative survey of American households focusing on their views on what LGBT topics are and should be taught, and what LGBT-themed books should be assigned and available. We report results overall and broken down by demographic, partisan, and geographic variables. We find that Americans report that they largely do not know what topics are being taught in schools, but they do not think LGBT topics are being taught to elementary children. There is widespread opposition to teaching about LGBT issues in elementary school, with more mixed support in high school. Voters are much more opposed to LGBT-themed books being assigned to students than available to them. There are very large splits in attitudes toward LGBT issues in schools, especially along political and religious lines and across states and counties based on partisan lean. We discuss implications of these findings for education policy and urge greater understanding of Americans' views about controversial topics in the curriculum.
Teacher rating scales (TRS) are often used to make service eligibility decisions for exceptional learners. Although TRS are regularly used to identify student exceptionalism either as part of an informal nomination process or through behavioral rating scales, there is little research documenting the between-teacher variance in teacher ratings or the consequences of such rater dependence. To evaluate the possible benefits or disadvantages of using TRS as part of a gifted identification process, we examined the student-, teacher-, and school-level variance in TRS controlling for student ability and achievement to determine the unique information, consistency, and potential bias in TRS. Between 10% and 25% of a students’ TRS score can be attributed to the teacher doing the rating, and between-teacher standard deviations represent an effect size of one-third to one-half standard deviation unit. Our results suggest that TRS are not easily comparable across teachers, making it impossible to set a cut score for admission into a program (or for further screening) that functions equitably across teachers.
Few interventions reduce inequality in reading achievement, let alone higher order thinking skills, among adolescents. We study “policy debate”—an extracurricular activity focused on improving middle and high schoolers’ critical thinking, argumentation, and policy analysis skills—in Boston schools serving large concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students of color. Student fixed effects estimates show debate had positive impacts on ELA test scores of 0.13 SD, equivalent to 68% of a full year of average 9th grade learning. Gains were concentrated on analytical more than rote subskills. We find no harm to math, attendance, or disciplinary records, and evidence of positive effects on high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment. Impacts were largest among students who were lowest achieving prior to joining debate.