The Impact on School Performance of No Child Left Behind Program Sanctions

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A study of poorly-performing North Carolina schools shows that replacing administration and staff improves student test score performance at all levels.

Title I is a federal program that provides funding to local school districts in the United States. The funds are supposed to be used to improve the academic achievement of students from low-income families. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school districts receiving this funding are required to track student performance. If a school's performance falls below a state-defined threshold on statewide achievement exams, the school is subject to a series of sanctions. The sanctions range from placement on a watch list for the first year of failure to "restructuring," which involves replacement of a school's administration and staff.

In The Impact of No Child Left Behind's Accountability Sanctions on School Performance: Regression Discontinuity Evidence From North Carolina (NBER Working Paper No. 20511), Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor find that school restructuring improves student performance at all levels. They conclude that "school management or leadership problems constitute the single greatest obstacle to improved student performance" and speculate that other incentives for improvement fail to have observable positive effects because "school leaders who cannot formulate strategies to improve performance cannot be expected to react constructively to incentives to do so."

Their results are based on student and school-level data for grades 3 through 8 in for the school years 2002-2003 through 2008-2009 provided by the North Carolina Educational Research Data Center. The data comprise 8,000 school-by-year observations and 1.7 million individual-level computations of test score changes. The effect of sanctions on test score gains was evaluated by looking at the change in students' standardized test scores in the year after a sanction was imposed. Changes were examined both for students who attended the school in question for consecutive years and for students who remained enrolled in any North Carolina school. Controls were added for race, English proficiency, and eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches.

The evidence suggests that both the least- and the most-severe sanctions improved student performance. Schools that were put on a watch list after their first year of failure posted improved reading and math scores for students near the accountability threshold and for students with below-average initial test scores. The scores of the best-performing students were unaffected. The authors suggest that being put on a watch list gave offending schools an incentive to focus resources on poorly performing students near the accountability threshold.

Intermediate sanctions, those imposed after a year or more of inadequate performance, included requirements for extra tutoring for poor students, for allowing students to transfer to other schools, and for development a restructuring plan. There was no evidence that any of these efforts improved test scores. School restructuring, the ultimate penalty, improved student achievement at all levels.

The authors caution against interpreting their results as suggesting that "a No Child Left Behind-style sanction regime is an effective way to identify schools in need of leadership change." Rather, they hope that more research on the nature of effective school leadership and management will produce targeted strategies that achieve similar results in a much shorter period of time.

-- Linda Gorman