NCLB, adequate yearly progress, and effects on student behavior

A new paper examines how schools failing to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind affected student attendance and behavior. Overall, it finds that the “accountability pressure” associated with No Child Left Behind encourages students to show up at school and to do so on time, but also leads to increases in misbehavior. Specifically, the authors estimate that being labelled as failing causes schools to post a 30−40 percent decline in reported absences, a 20–30 percent decline in reported tardies, and a 15–20 percent increase in reported suspensions in the following school year. As the authors note, it’s impossible to know to what extent these findings reflect changes in student behavior as opposed to changes in how that behavior is reported or addressed. But in their view, “the correct interpretation is probably some combination of both.”

Interestingly, while schools found ways to reduce absences and tardies for all performance subgroups, there were telling differences when it came to behavior, where the authors note “a u-shaped pattern—with only students at the bottom and the top of the test score distribution exhibiting notable increases in misbehavior.” Specifically, students in the lowest quartile of student performance exhibited larger increases than those in the middle two quartiles in seven of the ten metrics of misbehavior, including in-school and out-of-school suspensions, fights, drug possession, violent offenses, sexual offenses, and disruptive behaviors. Similarly, students in the highest achievement quartile exhibited increases in six of the ten misbehavior metrics, including out-of-school suspensions, drug possession, sexual offenses, weapons offenses, and “falsification-related offenses.”

In other words, the results suggest that “the largest negative effects may occur for the students who are least able to meet the requirements that administrators place on them” (or most capable of surpassing those requirements). As the authors note, this suggests that “if students themselves have limited capacity to respond in positive ways to increased pressure to do better on tests...they may respond by acting out” as may students whose capacity is underutilized.

In short, the study suggests that the highest and lowest performing students in failing schools were more likely to misbehave. A plausible explanation for this pattern is that high and low performing students received less attention due to NCLB’s unfortunate reliance on proficiency rates, which give educators a strong incentive to focus on the “bubble kids.” So one of the most obvious implications of the study is that we should stop using these measures.

The harder question is whether the study’s results should be interpreted narrowly or broadly—that is, to what extent should they be seen as applying to the specific accountability regime associated with NCLB (as implemented in North Carolina) as opposed to test-based accountability in general. It is certainly plausible that that an overemphasis on testing can have negative implications for some students’ behavior. But must it be so?

SOURCE: John Holbein and Helen Ladd, “Accountability pressure: Regression discontinuity estimates of how No Child Left Behind influenced student behavior,” Economics of Education Review (June 2017).

David Griffith
David Griffith is a Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.