School Style Can Raise Achievement

Summary of working paper 7985
Featured in print Digest

Elementary school students with teachers who are 'tough' graders have fewer disciplinary problems and show greater improvements in their reading and math scores.

Though state curricular standards have proliferated since 1983, there remains a stunning lack of consensus about what comprises a good education, an inability to agree on how one measures it, and a lack of evidence about whether particular teaching practices or school organizational forms do a superior job of imparting it. In Do High Grading Standards Affect Student Performance? (NBER Working Paper No. 7985), authors David Figlio and Maurice Lucas explore one of these questions. After controlling for student and family effects, they find that, on average, elementary school students with teachers who are "tough" graders have fewer disciplinary problems and show greater improvements in their reading and math scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. High-achieving students in low-achieving classes, and low-achieving students in high-achieving classes appear to benefit most from tougher grading standards.

In the Alachua County Public Schools, a Florida school district, there are about 1800 students in each grade; students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills each year. The FCAT is scored using the Sunshine State Standards, the same state curricular standards on which student letter grades in Florida are supposed to be based. Yet differences between an individual's grade in a course and his grade on the FCAT suggest that many teachers grade less stringently than the state standards recommend.

The authors find that only 9 percent of all Alachua County students given an A by their teacher scored at the corresponding level on the FCATs. There was a closer correspondence between test scores and grades for students with teachers who were relatively tough graders: 65 percent of A students with tough graders for teachers attained a level 4 (a B) or above. Among those with teachers who were relatively "light" graders, "only 28 percent of A students attained level 4 or above.

With a confidential dataset provided by the Alachua County School Board, Figlio and Lucas had access to information on almost every third, fourth, and fifth grader in the county between 1995-6 and 1998-9. Individual student records included teacher information, scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), report card grades, disciplinary records, race, ethnicity, sex, and disability status.

Comparing children's test score gains across years as their teachers change, Figlio and Lucas find that lowering student grades from A to B in some circumstances could lead to student test score gains of as much as one-third of a year or more. These estimated effects of increased grading standards are similar in magnitude to the relationship between test score gains and student poverty, measured by free lunch eligibility.

In a related paper, School Choice and the Distributional Effects of Ability Tracking: Does Separation Increase Equality? (NBER Working Paper No. 8055), authors David Figlio and Marianne Page note that along with tougher grading standards, schools traditionally have sought to challenge high achievers by putting them in classes, or "tracks," with peers of similar ability. Proponents of ability tracking argue that grouping students with similar abilities fosters learning by allowing teachers to fine tune instructional levels. Critics of ability tracking have argued that it deprives low aptitude students of positive peer effects arising from contact with more able students, that schools with tracking programs redistribute resources towards more able students, and that less capable teachers are assigned to low ability tracks. These criticisms, along with two decades of empirical studies that seem to suggest that ability grouping has benefited high-ability children and harmed low-ability ones, led to an estimated 7 percent drop between 1987 and 1993 in the number of gifted programs in the United States.

Figlio and Page however find no evidence that ability tracking harms disadvantaged students. If anything, they find that the effect of tracking is "positive for members of the low ability group" and that tracked settings appear to do a better job of educating low achievers. Finally, their results suggest that gifted and remedial programs help schools maintain an economically diverse student body by attracting students from higher income families.

Previous studies of tracking were based on the assumption that students' enrollment decisions were not related to whether a school grouped students by their academic ability; these studies often used track placement as a proxy for academic ability. But there is substantial disagreement about what constitutes ability groupings, and schools that group students by ability do not use standard criteria to identify high and low achievers. As a result, previous estimates of the effect of ability tracking are compromised by the possibility that the differences in outcome attributed to tracking may in fact be a product of the variations in student ability that determined track placement in the first place.

Figlio and Page avoid these problems by using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 and from the Schools and Staffing Survey (three national samples of schools and school districts done in 1987-8, 1990-1, and 1993-4). The data on 7,676 individuals come from a nationally representative sample of public school students. The authors measure achievement using the change in an individual's raw score on a mathematics achievement test between 8th and 10th grade. Along with student track placement, the authors control for effects attributable to differences in family background and school characteristics with information on parents' education, income, and race as well as school student-teacher ratios, teacher salaries, and demographic composition.

-- Linda Gorman