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Standards, accountability, assessment, and curriculum

Mark Murphy, Angela Johnson.

This study examines the effects of English Learner (EL) status on subsequent Special Education (SPED) placement. Through a research-practice partnership, we link student demographic data and initial English proficiency assessment data across seven cohorts of test takers and observe EL and SPED programmatic participation for these students over seven years. Our regression discontinuity estimates consistently differ substantively from results generated through regression analyses. We find evidence that the effect of EL status on SPED placement was either null or tied to slight under-identification. Our results suggest that under-identification occurred two years after EL classification. We also find that EL status led to under-identification for Spanish speakers and proportionate representation for Mandarin/Cantonese speakers and speakers of all other languages.

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Emma M. Klugman, Andrew D. Ho.

State testing programs regularly release previously administered test items to the public. We provide an open-source recipe for state, district, and school assessment coordinators to combine these items flexibly to produce scores linked to established state score scales. These would enable estimation of student score distributions and achievement levels. We discuss how educators can use resulting scores to estimate achievement distributions at the classroom and school level. We emphasize that any use of such tests should be tertiary, with no stakes for students, educators, and schools, particularly in the context of a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. These tests and their results should also be lower in priority than assessments of physical, mental, and social–emotional health, and lower in priority than classroom and district assessments that may already be in place. We encourage state testing programs to release all the ingredients for this recipe to support low-stakes, aggregate-level assessments. This is particularly urgent during a crisis where scores may be declining and gaps increasing at unknown rates.

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Christian Buerger, Seung Hyeong Lee, John D. Singleton.

A recent literature provides new evidence that school resources are important for student outcomes. In this paper, we show that school finance reform-induced increases in student performance are driven by those states that had test-based accountability policies in place at the time. By incentivizing school improvement, accountability systems (such as the federal No Child Left Behind act) may raise the efficiency with which additional school funding gets spent. Our empirical approach leverages the timing of school finance reforms to compare funding impacts on student test scores between states that had accountability in place at the time of the reform with states that did not. The results indicate that finance reforms are three times more productive in low-income school districts when also accompanied by test-based accountability. These findings shed new light on the role of accountability incentives in education production and the mechanisms supporting the effectiveness of school resources.

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Beth E. Schueler, Catherine Armstrong Asher, Katherine E. Larned, Sarah Mehrotra, Cynthia Pollard.

The public narrative surrounding efforts to improve low-performing K-12 schools in the U.S. has been notably gloomy. Observers argue that either nothing works or we don’t know what works. At the same time, the federal government is asking localities to implement evidence-based interventions. But what is known empirically about whether school improvement works, how long it takes, which policies are most effective, and which contexts respond best to intervention? We meta-analyze 141 estimates from 67 studies of turnaround policies implemented post-NCLB. On average, these policies have had a moderate positive effect on math but no effect on ELA achievement as measured by high-stakes exams. We find evidence of positive impacts on low-stakes exams in STEM and humanities subjects and no evidence of harm on non-test outcomes. Some elements of reform, namely extended learning time and teacher replacements, predict greater effects. Contexts serving majority-Latinx populations have seen the largest improvements.

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David D. Liebowitz.

Teacher evaluation policies seek to improve student outcomes by increasing the effort and skill levels of current and future teachers. Current policy and most prior research treats teacher evaluation as balancing two aims: accountability and skill development. Proper teacher evaluation design has been understood as successfully weighting the accountability and professional growth dimensions of policy and practice. I develop a model of teacher effectiveness that incorporates improvement from evaluation and detail conditions which determine the effectiveness of teacher evaluation for growth and accountability at improving student outcomes. Drawing on empirical evidence from the personnel economics, economics of education and measurement literatures, I simulate the long-term effects of a set of teacher evaluation policies. I find that those that treat evaluation for accountability and evaluation for growth as substitutes outperform policies that treat them as complements. I conclude that optimal teacher evaluation policies would impose accountability on teachers performing below a defined level and above which teachers would be subject to no accountability pressure but would receive intensive instructional supports.

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Cassandra M. D. Hart, Brian Jacob, Susanna Loeb.

A common rationale for offering online courses in K-12 schools is that they allow students to take courses not offered at their schools; however, there has been little research on how online courses are used to expand curricular options when operating at scale. We assess the extent to which students and schools use online courses for this purpose by analyzing statewide, student-course level data from high school students in Florida, which has the largest virtual sector in the nation. We introduce a “novel course” framework to address this question. We define a virtual course as “novel” if it is only available to a student virtually, not face-to-face through their own home high school. We find that 7% of high school students in 2013-14 enroll in novel online courses. Novel courses were more commonly used by higher-achieving students, in rural schools, and in schools with relatively few Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate offerings.

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Monnica Chan, Zachary Mabel, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani.

Performance-based funding models for higher education, which tie state support for institutions to performance on student outcomes, have proliferated in recent decades. Some states have designed these policies to also address educational attainment gaps by including bonus payments for traditionally low-performing groups. Using a Synthetic Control Method research design, we examine the impact of these funding regimes on race-based completion gaps in Tennessee and Ohio. We find no evidence that performance-based funding narrowed race-based completion gaps. In fact, contrary to their intended purpose, we find that performance-based funding widened existing gaps in certificate completion in Tennessee. Across both states, the estimated impacts on associate degree outcomes are also directionally consistent with performance-based funding exacerbating racial inequities in associate degree attainment.

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Jeffrey T. Denning, Eric R. Eide, Kevin J. Mumford, Richard W. Patterson, Merrill Warnick.

College completion rates declined from the 1970s to the 1990s. We document that this trend has reversed--since the 1990s, college completion rates have increased. We investigate the reasons for the increase in college graduation rates. Collectively, student characteristics, institutional resources, and institution attended do not explain much of the change. However, we show that grade inflation can explain much of the change in graduation rates. We show that GPA is a strong predictor of graduation rates and that GPAs have been rising since the 1990s. We also find that increases in college GPAs cannot be explained by student demographics, ability, and school factors. Further, we find that at a public liberal arts college, grades have increased over time conditional on final exam performance.

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Heather C. Hill, Zid Mancenido, Susanna Loeb.

Despite calls for more evaluative research in teacher education, formal assessments of the effectiveness of novel teacher education practices remain rare. One reason is that we lack designs and measurement approaches that appropriately meet the challenges of causal inference in the field. In this article, we seek to fill this gap. We first outline the difficulties of doing evaluative work in teacher education. We then describe a set of replicable practices for developing measures of key teaching outcomes, and propose evaluative research designs that can be adapted to suit the needs of the field. Finally, we identify community-wide initiatives that are necessary to advance useful evaluative research.

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Carycruz Bueno.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put virtual schooling at the forefront of policy concerns, as millions of children worldwide shift to virtual schooling with hopes of “slowing the spread”. Given the emergency shift to online education coupled with the large increase in demand for virtual education over the last decade it is imperative to explore the impacts of virtual education on student outcomes. This paper estimates the causal effect of full-time virtual school attendance on student outcomes with important implications for school choice, online education, and education policy. Despite the increasing demand for K-12 virtual schools over the past decade little is known about the impact of full-time virtual schools on students’ cognitive and behavioral outcomes. The existing evidence on the impact of online education on students’ outcomes is mixed. I use a longitudinal data set composed of individual-level information on all public-school students and teachers throughout Georgia from 2007 to 2016 to investigate how attending virtual schools influences student outcomes. I implement a variety of econometric specifications to account for the issue of potential self-selection into full-time virtual schools. I find that attending a virtual school leads to a reduction of 0.1 to 0.4 standard deviations in English Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies achievement test scores for students in elementary and middle school. I also find that ever attending a virtual school is associated with a 10-percentage point reduction in the probability of ever graduating from high school. This is early evidence that full-time virtual schools as a type of school choice could be harmful to students’ learning and future economic opportunities, as well as a sub-optimal use of taxpayer money.

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