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Published in Print: June 21, 2006, as Suspensions Kept Fla. Low Scorers Out of Tests, Study Says

Suspensions Kept Fla. Low Scorers Out of Tests, Study Says

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Some schools in Florida appear to have used disciplinary suspensions to “game the system” by keeping low-achieving students out of school during testing periods, a new study says.

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The study by David N. Figlio, a professor of economics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, found that students with lower scores on previous standardized tests were more likely to be suspended than their higher-achieving counterparts, and were disciplined for longer periods, during the times of year when the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, was administered. The study was published in the May edition of the Journal of Public Economics.

“I don’t know the degree to which it was deliberate, but I do know it’s highly related to accountability sanctions,” Mr. Figlio said in an interview last week.

The study used student data from 1996 through 2000, the first four years that the FCAT was in use. At the time, the exam was administered in grades 4, 8, and 10 in reading and writing and in grades 5, 8, and 10 in math.

Incentives Changed

Cathy Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said preventing low-achieving students from taking tests would not help schools now. That’s because under a 2002 change to the state's accountability system, rewards are based on improvement, not overall school performance.

Mr. Figlio studied suspensions stemming from 41,803 incidents at 504 elementary, middle, and high schools over the four years. In all of the incidents, two students were suspended, and in 60 percent of the cases, one student received a longer punishment.

“While schools always tend to assign harsher punishments to low-performing students than to high-performing students throughout the year, this gap grows substantially during the testing window,” says the study, adding that the gap appears only in the high-stakes grades.

Lower-achieving students were suspended for an average of 2.35 days, compared with 1.91 days for their higher-achieving peers.

Jay P. Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who has conducted studies on accountability in Florida and the FCAT, called Mr. Figlio’s report valid, but added that the effects were relatively minimal.

Vol. 25, Issue 41, Page 30

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