Left Behind By Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability
Many test-based accountability systems, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), place great weight on the numbers of students who score at or above specified proficiency levels in various subjects. Accountability systems based on these metrics often provide incentives for teachers and principals to target children near current proficiency levels for extra attention, but these same systems provide weak incentives to devote extra attention to students who are clearly proficient already or who have little chance of becoming proficient in the near term. We show based on fifth grade test scores from the Chicago Public Schools that both the introduction of NCLB in 2002 and the introduction of similar district level reforms in 1996 generated noteworthy increases in reading and math scores among students in the middle of the achievement distribution. Nonetheless, the least academically advantaged students in Chicago did not score higher in math or reading following the introduction of accountability, and we find only mixed evidence of score gains among the most advantaged students. A large existing literature argues that accountability systems built around standardized tests greatly affect the amount of time that teachers devote to different topics. Our results for fifth graders in Chicago, as well as related results for sixth graders after the 1996 reform, suggest that the choice of the proficiency standard in such accountability systems determines the amount of time that teachers devote to students of different ability levels.
We thank Elaine Allensworth, John Q. Easton, and Todd Rosenkranz of the Consortium on Chicago School Research for their assistance in using the data. We thank Amy Nowell of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). We thank participants in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago's Labor Economics seminar, the Harris School's Public Policy and Economics Workshop, and the joint meeting of the Institute for Research on Poverty's Summer Research Workshop and the Chicago Workshop on Black-White Inequality. We thank Fernando Alvarez, Gadi Barlevy, Kelly Bedard, Julie Berry Cullen, Jennifer Booher-Jennings, Brian Jacob, Roger Myerson, Kalina Michalska, Phil Reny, and Balazs Szentes for useful comments and discussions, and Chloe Hutchinson, Garrett Hagemann, and Richard Olson for helpful research assistance. We owe special thanks to Phil Hansen for being so generous with his time and his knowledge of accountability within CPS. Neal thanks the Searle Freedom Trust for generous research support. We both thank the Population Research Center of NORC and the University of Chicago for research support. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Derek Neal & Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, 2010. "Left Behind by Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability," Review of Economics and Statistics, vol 92(2), pages 263-283.