The DeHavilland Blog

Monday, February 25, 2008

NCLB and dropout rates

Found the following in Science Daily (hat tip to the NASSMC Briefing Service):

Negative Implications Of No Child Left Behind: As Graduation Rates Go Down, School Ratings Go Up

ScienceDaily (Feb. 16, 2008) — A new study by researchers at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin finds that Texas' public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates. Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation -- a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, Latino and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students, the study found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ESL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

"High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn't lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities," said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. "It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately we found that compliance means losing students."

The study shows as schools came under the accountability system, which uses student test scores to rate schools and reward or discipline principals, massive numbers of students left the school system. The exit of low-achieving students created the appearance of rising test scores and of a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students, thus increasing the schools' ratings.

This study has serious implications for the nation's schools under the NCLB law. It finds that the higher the stakes and the longer such an accountability system governs schools, the more school personnel view students not as children to educate but as potential liabilities or assets for their school's performance indicators, their own careers or their school's funding.

The study shows a strong relationship between the increasing number of dropouts and school's rising accountability ratings, finding that:

  • Losses of low-achieving students help raise school ratings under the accountability system.
  • The accountability system allows principals to hold back students who are deemed at risk of reducing the school's scores; many students retained this way end up dropping out.
  • The test scores grouped by race single out the low-achieving students in these subgroups as potential liabilities to the school ratings, increasing incentives for school administrators to allow those students to quietly exit the system.
  • The accountability system's zero tolerance rules for attendance and behavior, which put youth into the court system for minor offenses and absences, alienate students and increase the likelihood they will drop out.

The discrepancy between the official dropout rates, in the 2 to 3 percent range, and the actual rates can be attributed to the state's method of counting, which does not include students who drop out of school for reasons such as pregnancy or incarceration or declare intent to take the GED sometime in the future.

The study analyzes student-level data of 271,000 students in one of Texas' large urban districts over a seven-year period. It also includes analysis of the policy and its implementation, extensive observations in high schools in that district and interviews with students, teachers, administrators and students who left school without graduating.

The study has been published in the peer-reviewed policy journal "Educational Policy Analysis Archives" and is the first research to track the impact of high-stakes accountability on students, employing individual student-level data over a multi-year period. The study can be viewed at

Surely they're not really saying what I think they're saying.

They're saying that if you require kids to demonstrate a minimal level of academic proficiency, they'll leave rather than learn - and that their teachers and administrators will be the ones happily showing them the door.

They're saying it's better to advance someone who cannot demonstrate minimal proficiency than to hold them back.

They're saying that the disaggregation of data - highlighting the disparities in achievement among various groups of students - is a bad thing.

They're saying that enforcing behavior standards alienates students.

What they're saying is that the only way to engage kids and create real learning is to eliminate all traces of accountability. It's the perfect catch-22, saying that students will only learn when you remove any tools that can show whether they're learning or not.

I have no doubt that their facts are correct: that the dropout rate increases when you enforce learning and behavioral standards. But is eliminating accountability the solution to the dropout rate? You may in fact see more kids staying in school - but to what end?

Or is there another solution? Perhaps embracing accountability and using it as a tool to ensure that kids have the skills and knowledge they need before it's too late? That's what these schools are doing at least. Isn't it what we want from public education?


  • I have a question -- why are you so high on TN schools and TVASS? TN's schools are some of the worst performing schools in the country. The standards are way too low. The TCAP test is a joke as in many of the measures neither proficient or advanced mean a child is at or above grade level.

    Many more schools will fail to make AYP this school year. Major change is coming as TN will begin to track its dismal progress against NAEP rather tha TCAP in two school years.

    Yep, things are a mess in our schools. So, why do you like them?

    By Blogger din819go, at 6:22 AM  

  • You're right that proficiency standards in Tennessee are extremely low - in fact, in some areas, they're the lowest in the country. (See for more on this.) And I'm not in favor of that at all.

    It should be noted that the problem is not with the tests themselves, but with the cut scores - ie, what it takes to be deemed proficient.

    What I do like about education in Tennessee is the existence of value-added data and its availability to the public, at least at the school level.

    Value-added allows access to isolate and measure the impact each school has on student academic achievement, and that's a remarkable thing. Tennessee's system is the longest-standing (in place 10 years before NCLB) and has been proven valid through a range of studies.

    Granted, it's a relative measure: it allows you to compare schools, but does not provide an absolute end point to see whether students are moving fast enough to hit a certain target. That data does exist, but it's not publicly available, at least in the aggregate. (Parents can get projection reports for their children to see whether they're on target to achieve at a certain level in gateway tests on on the ACT.)

    So it's not wholehearted admiration for the system: cut scores are far too low. But the existence of a solid value-added system, one that is starting to be rolled out in other states, is to be applauded.

    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 2:52 PM  

  • Brent -- Yes, Tennessee's cut scores are a huge problem. It seems the state keeps lowering them. When the state used stanines the scores seemed to have been much more reliable. Now the uninformed citizen sees the words proficient and advanced and believes their child performs at or above grade level. What dupes we are...

    Tennessee is moving away from the TCAP in two years and will use the NAEP scores. I have no clue what this will do to the value added scores...I imagine they will show less than a year's learning has taken place as the bar should be raised much higher than it currently is -- at least it should be.

    My question is how many of Tennessee's teachers are truly qualified much less capable of teaching students at a higher level. Heck, maybe a better question is what is being done today to prepare students for the supposed higher standards and more rigorous academic requirements of the NAEP. It will be interesting to watch. No fun having one's state be at the bottom of the education tree year after year after year...

    By Blogger din819go, at 6:39 AM  

  • We have a similar problem in North Carolina - extremely low cut scores. It's a political thing - politicians are perfectly happy with the appearance of success, particularly when it's so much easier than actually creating change.

    That's why I've been so surprised to hear the talk about moving to the NAEP standards in TN - there's going to be an eruption when proficiency rates drop from the 90s down into the 20s. I'm actually still skeptical that it will happen given the certain fallout.

    In terms of value-added, I don't think it will change anything. Scores are based on the state average in 1998, and they'll just adjust that number so you've got a consistent beacon. The only thing that will really change value-added scores is if you see a real change in instructional approaches.

    Thanks for stopping by - I appreciate your comments!


    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 10:11 PM  

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