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Accountability Opinion

Cool People You Should Know: David Figlio

By Eduwonkette — August 21, 2008 1 min read

Economist David Figlio, who has extensively studied the intended and unintended consequences of accountability systems, recently made a move from the University of Florida over to Northwestern. Figlio has a knack for the creative - but still substantive - paper: for example, see his papers on the unintended consequences of accountability systems including Food for Thought? The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition, Accountabilty, Ability, and Disability: Gaming the System?, and Testing, Crime, and Punishment. More recently, he mounted an impressive survey of Florida principals to identify their responses to accountability pressures. (See Feeling the Florida Heat? How Low-Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Programs.)

In our chat on testing and accountability on Tuesday, Figlio provided a terrific overview of the accountability literature in response to Sherman Dorn’s question, which is worth reprinting in full here:

I think that the evidence is becoming clearer that many of the hopes of high-stakes accountability advocates and many of the fears of high-stakes accountability critics are correct -- school administrators and teachers can and do respond to accountability pressures, at least at the margins. A number of recent studies have shown that schools subject to greater accountability pressure tend to improve student test performance in reading and mathematics to a meaningful degree -- my recent study of Florida with Cecilia Rouse, Jane Hannaway and Dan Goldhaber (working paper on the website of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or caldercenter.org), for instance, suggests test score gains of one-tenth of a standard deviation in reading and math associated with a school getting an "F" grade relative to a "D" grade. We find that these test score gains persist for several years after the student leaves the affected school. Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University has a new working paper studying New York City's rollout of school grades that suggests that responses to grading pressure seem to happen immediately -- grades released in November were mainfested in test score changes in the same winter/spring. In the case of my study with Rouse, Hannaway and Goldhaber, we try to look inside the "black box" by studying a wide variety of potentially productive school responses, and it appears that Florida schools responded to accountability pressures by changing some of their instructional policies and practices, rather than "gaming the system." The rapid and apparently productive response of school personnel to school accountability pressure suggests that educators are, at least to some degree "magisters economici," responding to the incentives associated with the system. And this makes getting the system right so important, because if schools and teachers respond quickly to incentives, the incentives had better be what society/policymakers want. Many people raise concerns about teaching to the test, and there is certainly evidence of this -- consistently, estimated effects of accountability on high-stakes tests are larger than those on low-stakes tests -- though the low-stakes test results tend to be meaningful still, especially with respect to math. Harder to get a handle on is the narrowing of the curriculum to concentrate on the measured subjects; there is a lot of suggestive evidence that this is taking place to a small degree at the elementary level, though studies of the effects of accountability on performance on low-stakes subjects typically don't find that performance on these subjects suffers -- but of course, those subjects are still being measured with tests. Still there is certainly the incentive to reduce focus on "low-stakes" subjects. One possible solution for those concerned about low-stakes subjects being given short shrift would be to impose requirements such as minimum time spent of instruction or portfolio reviews. There is a lot of evidence that accountability systems can have unintended consequences that are predicted by the magister economicus model. Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach at the University of Chicago note that accountability systems based on getting students above a given performance threshold tend to induce schools to focus on the kids on the "bubble." I've found that that type of system may lead schools to employ selective discipline in an apparent attempt to shape the testing pool, or even to utilize the school meals program to artificially boost student test performance by "carbo-loading" students for peak short-term brain activity. These types of unintended consequences are much more likely in accountability systems based on the "status" model of getting students above a proficiency threshold, rather than the "gains" model of evaluating schools based on how much these students gain. But there's a tradeoff here. The more we evaluate schools based on test score gains, where gaming incentives are lower, the more the focus is taken off of poorly-performing students whom society/policymakers would like to see attain proficiency. How the system is designed is crucially important.

You can find the transcript for the chat on testing and accountability here.

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