No Child Left Behind Rules Raise Student Performance

"The simplified NCLB notification doubled the fraction of parents choosing a different school...The students who gained admission to schools with test scores substantially above their failing school experienced significant improvements in test scores."

In the summer of 2004, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) in North Carolina determined that ten elementary schools and six middle schools had failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for two consecutive years, and would face the first phase of sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). By law, parents of children in those schools had to be allowed the opportunity to send their children to different schools.

CMS had recently introduced district-wide school choice. Each spring, since 2002, parents selected the schools they would like their children to attend in the fall. While the district provided many resources to help parents with the school choice process, including a family application center and a school choice application guide, objective information on academic achievement was not readily available. The application guide was 100 pages long, and contained descriptions of schools often written by the schools themselves and emphasizing the positive aspects of each school. The staff at the family application center encouraged parents to talk with their children and interview individual schools to identify which school would be the best for their specific child, since different schools are best for different children. However, obtaining objective statistics on test scores, suspension rates, or racial compositions would require a lengthy school-by-school online search and comparison.

The NCLB Act requires that the districts provide parents in NCLB sanctioned schools with concrete information on the academic achievement at each of their school choice options. Hence, in the summer of 2004, the district notified parents of children in sanctioned schools that their school had failed to make AYP, and that they had the right under NCLB to choose to send their children to another school. They also sent parents simplified, objective, information about academic achievement at their children's school, and at every other school in the district. Parents then could apply to the school of their choice, although admission to schools then was determined by a lottery process.

In No Child Left Behind: Estimating the Impact on Choices and Student Outcomes (NBER Working Paper No. 13009), Justine Hastings and Jeffrey Weinstein use this natural experiment to explore whether parents changed their school choices in response to the new information about academic performance, and whether allowing them to make a more informed choice led to academic gains. The authors were given access to the district's administrative records. As a result, their sample included information on the less informed school choice made in the spring of 2004 and the more fully informed school choice made in July of 2004. They also had information about school assignment procedures, attendance records, test scores, and student demographics. Of the 6,695 students in their sample, 1,092 students both filled out a new choice form in July and chose to attend a different school.

The authors find that the simplified NCLB notification doubled the fraction of parents choosing a different school, and those parents chose schools with strikingly higher academic achievement. Approximately 16 percent of "parents who received notification responded by choosing schools with test scores that were an average of 1 standard deviation higher than the school that they had chosen to attend just a few months earlier."

A key determinant of whether a parent chose to opt out of a failing school was the existence of higher quality alternatives nearby. Higher test scores at nearby schools significantly increased both the probability that a parent would choose another school, and the test score at the school chosen. The authors find evidence that winning admission to a chosen school reduced serious suspension rates, and that students who gained admission to schools with test scores substantially above their failing school experienced significant improvements in test scores. The authors conclude that proximity to high scoring substitute schools and simplified information are important parts of a successful choice component and that the positive effects of school choice under NCLB may be elusive in "school districts with large geographic densities of low-performing schools..

-- Linda Gorman

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