Tuesday, April 2, 2013


How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game 

Source: http://www.kingsburycenter.org/sites/default/files/75423_NWEA_LPF_MasterDoc_FINAL%20April%202.pdf

Michael Dahlin and Beth Tarasawa

In September 2011, the Kingsbury Center at Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released one of the first longitudinal studies of high-achieving students entitled Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? In that study, authors Xiang, Dahlin, Cronin, Theaker, and Durant (2011) found that most high-achieving students maintained their status over time, but that a significant proportion fell from the high-achieving ranks, some far enough to jeopardize their access to college and merit assistance.

In this follow-up, the academic growth of 35,000 elementary and middle school students in 31 states, all
of them high achievers within their own schools, were followed over a three-year period. Of particular interest to us were the growth and performance of high-achieving students from high-poverty schools, where “growth” focused on change over time and “performance” focused on single points of time. As the focus of accountability has shifted from basic proficiency to college and career readiness, we wondered whether high-poverty schools’ students were “on track” to meet this higher standard by the end of high school. To study this, we compared a sample of NWEA schools’ achievement scores in elementary and middle school grades, and their associated probability of being on track to meet ACT® college readiness benchmarks at the end of high school.

The study yielded several major findings and policy implications:

Finding One—While the vast majority of high achievers were on track to be college ready, significant achievement gaps existed between students in poor schools and students in wealthy schools.
As expected, high achievers in the low-poverty middle schools were better prepared than those in high-poverty schools; 95% of the high achievers attending wealthy schools were on track to meet ACT college readiness benchmarks, while 85% of high achievers from poor schools also crossed this threshold. These proportions remained essentially constant across all three years that they were tracked.

Policy Implication: To close the achievement gap, high- poverty schools will need to offer their high achievers accelerated and advanced programs that are standard fare in wealthier schools. Because many students in high-poverty schools come from families without college experience, schools may need to move beyond basics to address critical elements of Conley’s Four Key Dimensions of College Readiness (2007), particularly the academic behaviors (self-management skills, time management, persistence) and the contextual skills and awareness (college culture, affording college, admission procedures and requirements) that may require special attention for students in these settings to maximize their potential. This kind of programming may require additional resources.

Finding Two—The average rates of academic growth by high achievers in wealthy and poor schools were nearly equivalent.
Only modest differences in growth rates were observed among all high achievers, with poorer schools producing trivially smaller growth in math achievement and poorer elementary schools showing slightly larger growth rates in reading achievement. This suggests that moving a child from a poor school to a wealthier school was not likely to have any noticeable impact on that student’s academic growth rate, particularly with respect to reading skills.

Policy Implication: For years a mythology has persisted that implies parents must move to the suburbs or enroll their children in charter or private schools to get a quality education. For this sample at least, the myth
is busted, and the results provide solid evidence that accountability policies that are based on students’ academic progress are a better measure of school effectiveness than the proficiency-driven approach of NCLB. Status measures are useful for identifying top student populations, and these benchmarks provide parents with an essential means for assessing whether their children are making progress toward their personal academic goals. School accountability policies should not be based on status measures (such as proficiency rates
or college readiness rates), since these measures are largely controlled by socioeconomic factors beyond school control. Rather, schools should be held accountable for student growth rates. 

Finding Three—Within high- and low-poverty schools, growth rates varied tremendously; some schools showed extraordinary growth and others showed abysmal growth.
The consequences of these differences were enormous for the students at these schools. For example, the top quartile of high-poverty elementary schools produced growth rates that entirely erased and surpassed the achievement gap relative to the wealthiest schools with the lowest growth rates. This same pattern was true for middle schools as well. In other words, the quality of the school mattered a great deal more than the poverty rate of the school in determining student growth.

Policy Implication: In order to ensure that high achievers receive adequate resources within their schools, regardless of school poverty, we should recognize the top performers in each school as a subgroup when setting accountability policy and evaluating school programs.

In general, educational policy employs subgroup identification to assure that schools act to mitigate
that group’s disadvantages, and policy is an appropriate lever for that purpose. But educational policy is also used to address issues of a compelling national interest. Employing policy to assure that each community’s best performing children get the attention from schools that will be needed to achieve their potential, not only serves children well, it also guarantees that we develop the next generation of experts and leaders in business, science, medicine, and politics. For that reason, this subgroup’s results should affect the school’s accountability score within their state, just as the performance of other subgroups do. 

Michael Dahlin, Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, is a Research Specialist in the Kingsbury Center at NWEA. His primary research interests are policy research related to testing standards, school accountability, and teacher accountability.
Beth Tarasawa, Ph.D. in Sociology, is a Research Specialist in the Kingsbury Center at NWEA. Her primary research interest is education policy related to economic and racial equity. 

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