Opinion
Accountability Opinion

School Progress Grade Effects on NYC Achievement: Tame, Fierce, or a Hot Mess?

By skoolboy — November 12, 2008 4 min read

skoolboy ventured into the rarified air of NYC’s Harvard Club yesterday to hear Marcus Winters present his new Manhattan Institute research on the effects of the 2006-07 New York City School Progress Reports on students’ 2008 performance on state math and English tests in grades four through eight. The analysis uses a regression-discontinuity design, capitalizing on the fact that schools received a continuous total score summarizing their performance on school environment (15%), student performance (30%) and student growth (55%), but there are firm cut-offs that distinguish schools receiving an F from those receiving a D, those receiving a D from those receiving a C, etc. This means that there might be schools that are very similar in their total scores, and presumably on other school characteristics, on either side of a given cut-off, allowing researchers to study the test-score consequences of obtaining a specific letter grade.

The two tables below summarize the impact of the Progress Report grades on student math and English proficiency, respectively. Both tables contrast the consequences of getting an A, B, D or F with a reference category, a C grade. A green up-arrow indicates that students in a school that received a particular Progress Report Grade did better than students in C schools, whereas a red down-arrow indicates that students did worse than students in C schools. An X indicates that student performance did not differ significantly from that of students in C schools at the p<.05 level.

There’s a lot of X’s. In math, students in F schools did better than students in schools receiving higher grades, although this seems to be primarily due to an effect in grade 5. Students in D schools also did better than those in schools receiving higher grades, also due to their advantages in grade 5, apparently. In English, the letter grade a school received did not have any consequences for student performance.

Although both Winters and discussant Jonah Rockoff were careful to note limits both to the analyses and what they can tell us about the incentive effects of accountability systems, both characterized the results as pretty clear evidence that schools reacted to receiving an F or a D in ways that boosted student achievement. This was particularly noteworthy, they argued, because such little time had elapsed between when a school learned that it had received a D or F and when students were tested—January, for English, and March, for mathematics.

Well, yeah, the short time between receiving the grade and the testing is certainly an issue, and surfaced as the likely explanation for why no effects of the School Progress Report grades were found in English. But skoolboy is still worried about math. There were no statistically reliable consequences for getting a D or an F in grades 4, 6, 7 and 8; only in grade 5 is there a test-score boost. How are we to make sense of this? If the letter grades are such a powerful incentive, wouldn’t they affect the performance of students in all of the grades in a school, not just fifth-graders?

Cool person Amy Ellen Schwartz posed a very smart question from the audience. “What about those A and B schools doing worse than the C schools in 5th grade math? What does that mean?” she asked. The panelists didn’t want to address that head-on, in skoolboy’s view, but he will: Looking at 5th grade mathematics, there’s as much evidence of the receipt of an A or a B causing a school to coast as there is evidence of the receipt of a D or an F causing a school to be more productive. Probably not a popular interpretation among the true believers in the power of incentives in the room.

But the bigger story is one of what Winters called “tame” effects. No effects of the School Progress Report grades in English, and limited evidence of effects in Math. A short time-horizon between the “treatment” of receiving the grades and student testing. Ambiguous incentives, both positive and negative, associated with the grades. A very weak theory of how the grades would be expected to increase student performance. It’s a wonder that Winters found anything at all.

A last point: Winters suggested that there were dire predictions that schools would “give up” if they got low Progress Report grades, and his findings, he said, did not show that. Although there were editorials at the time of the initial release of the Progress Reports last fall expressing concern that schools might be stigmatized by getting a C, D or F when students were performing at generally high levels, I question whether anyone thought that schools, and the educators who work in them, would “give up.” The more predictable reaction—which I think was born out—was that principals, teachers and parents would simply not believe the Progress Report grades accurately characterized what they saw on a day-to-day basis. A lot of stakeholders don’t believe that the Progress Report grades are reliable measures of school performance, and given what eduwonkette and I have shown about the instability in the student progress measures at the heart of the system, those beliefs are well-founded.

A brief version of the research can be found here. The technical version is now available at the same location.

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