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Study Finds No ‘Educational Triage’ Driven by NCLB

By Debra Viadero — October 31, 2007 4 min read
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A new study offers evidence to dispute the notion that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is pressuring educators in struggling schools to focus on the “bubble kids”—students who fall just below the passing threshold on state tests—at the expense of students at the high and low ends of the achievement spectrum.

For the study, which is to be published Oct. 31 in the magazine Education Next, researcher Matthew G. Springer scoured three years of test-score data on 300,000 elementary and middle school students in an unnamed Western state for signs that students in the middle testing range got a disproportionate boost in test scores after the 2002 law took effect.

“I didn’t see anything that seemed to indicate that educational triage is taking place,” said Mr. Springer, a research assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Rather, he found, the schools identified as having fallen short of their performance goals succeeded in raising achievement for the entire range of students at risk of failing, without sacrificing the academic progress of the most gifted students.

His findings run counter to those of a recent analysis by a pair of University of Chicago economists.

Focusing on the 421,000-student Chicago school district, researchers Derek A. Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach studied two time periods during which the school system was shifting to a testing-and-accountability system that turned up the pressure on educators to raise test scores.

In both periods, the Chicago researchers found, students in the middle of the pack made the largest test-score gains, compared with students in previous years. (“Study: Low, High Fliers Gain Less Under NCLB,” Aug. 1, 2007.)

Limitations Cited

The incentive to cater to the “bubble kids” can be strong under the NCLB law, because schools get no credit for simply raising student achievement.

Instead, they must show that the percentages of students who meet or exceed passing levels on state exams—overall, and for specified racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and disability subgroups of students—are increasing each year.

“I can tell you anecdotally, after visiting many states in the last several years, that focusing on the bubble kids is an explicit strategy for many districts and schools,” said Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at the National Center on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, located at the University of California, Los Angeles.

No national study, though, has documented how widespread such practices may be. And it’s hard to know, experts said, whether Mr. Springer’s study or the Chicago report is more representative of what may be going on in schools nationwide.

“It’s not surprising that results for Chicago would be different from results for a Western state, particularly since the schools are smaller [in the state studied],” said Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In smaller schools, it’s easier to focus on everyone.”

The newer study is also constrained, said Mr. Neal, who led the Chicago research, because it includes no comparative data for years predating the nearly 6-year-old NCLB law. “The question is,” he said, “if there’d never been NCLB, what would those test scores look like?”

Mr. Springer also acknowledges those limitations. Nonetheless, he said, the state he studied offered a unique research advantage in that it had statewide data from low-stakes tests administered to students twice a year, in the spring and in the fall, thus eliminating any impact that students’ varied summer experiences might have on learning.

In addition, teachers get reports within a day or two of those tests, which project how individual students will fare on the state’s high-stakes exams.

“So if triage was to take place, educators would know exactly which students they really needed to focus on,” Mr. Springer said.

Scores Dissected

To probe for signs of that practice, Mr. Springer divided the students, who were in grades 3-8—grades tested annually in reading and math under the NCLB law—into 20 groups based on their test scores.

He then compared the gains students made over the school year with those of students within the same achievement group, in order to flag academic growth that might be greater or lower than expected.

After adjusting for demographic differences and common statistical tendencies that might skew the findings, Mr. Springer found students in schools that had failed to meet their proficiency targets—what is known under the federal law as adequate yearly progress, or AYP—the lowest-performing students posted twice as much academic growth over the school year as students who started out just below the proficiency cutoff.

At the same time, the students who already scored as proficient did not lose ground. The most advanced among them performed comparably to other high-scoring students.

In schools that did make AYP, Mr. Springer found, lower-performing students met expectations, with the largest gains coming from the pupils who were the weakest academically. On the other hand, the already-proficient students in those schools experienced small but statistically significant academic losses from fall to spring, according to the study.

A more technical version of Mr. Springer’s report is also due to appear in an upcoming issue of the Economics of Education Review, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

In the meantime, Mr. Springer is expanding his analysis to four other states to see if the patterns he found hold up there as well.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Finds No ‘Educational Triage’ Driven by NCLB

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