States should use ESSA to do right by high-achieving students

The Fordham Institute’s new report, High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, examines whether states' current or planned accountability systems for elementary and middle schools attend to the needs of high-achieving students, as well as how these systems might be redesigned under the Every Student Succeeds Act to better serve all students. It finds that the overwhelming majority of states provide schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students. This is a problem.

Accountability has been a central theme of education reform for almost two decades, driven by the unchallenged central finding of James Coleman’s seminal 1966 study: Although some interventions are demonstrably more effective than others, there’s no direct link between what goes into a school by way of resources and what comes out by way of student learning. Sage policy makers have recognized that trying to micromanage school and district “inputs” is a waste of time. Instead, the prudent course is to (a) clearly state the results that educational institutions ought to produce, (b) assess how satisfactorily those results are being achieved, and then (c) hold schools and school systems to account, with rewards of various sorts for success and interventions of various sorts in the event of institutional failure.

This strategy has worked fairly well. After years of stagnation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, achievement began to rise again in the late ‘90s—particularly in the earlier grades and most notably in math—as states set new academic standards, started testing their students regularly, and installed their own versions of “consequential accountability” systems. Once No Child Left Behind (NCLB) made this reform regime inescapable, “late adopter” states—those jurisdictions that hadn’t already moved in this direction on their own—also started to see gains. Rigorous studies have shown that accountability deserves at least some of the credit for these improvements. That isn’t too surprising, considering that just about every person and institution does a little better at any number of undertakings when consequences follow from success and failure.

So far, so good. Yet we must not gloss over critical details. Early proponents of accountability in public education tended to speak in generalities; it was said, for example, that we needed to hold schools accountable for “raising student achievement.” But whose achievement? All students? In which subjects? Measured how?

NCLB provided its own answers to these questions. Schools would be held to account for getting greater proportions of their students—and greater proportions of key subgroups—to “proficiency” in reading and math. States would define “proficiency” as they saw fit, but they would eventually need to sanction any school that didn’t raise all of its students to that level.

Faced with these requirements, most states did the rational thing and set the proficiency bar low. That move, combined with NCLB’s mandatory cascade of sanctions, created a powerful incentive for schools to pay close attention to students below proficiency. Conversely, there was absolutely no incentive to worry about the achievement of those who had already reached (or were likely to reach) that bar. To put it bluntly, NCLB did some good for America’s struggling pupils, but for high achievers, it mostly just hit the education pause button.

Research has demonstrated that students just below the bar were most likely to make large gains in the NCLB era, while high achievers made lesser improvements. Those most victimized by this regime were high-achieving poor and minority students—kids who were dependent on the school system to cultivate their potential and accelerate their achievement. (Equally able youngsters from middle-class circumstances have other people, supports, and educational resources to keep them moving forward.) The good news is that accountability works: Districts, schools, and educators do respond to its incentives and disincentives. The bad news is that kids can get left high and dry when policy makers incentivize schools to pick winners and losers.

Why Focus on High Achievers?

Many education reformers look at results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other macro measures and see some positive trend lines in recent decades. Gaps are indeed closing, especially between low- and high-achieving students. Isn’t that what we want?

Yes, of course—up to a point. Our K–12 system has historically done the greatest harm to our lowest-performing students, who tend to come from poor and minority families. Using accountability (as well as school choice and other strategies) to improve matters for disadvantaged children has therefore been, and should remain, a policy focus.

But it should not be the only focus. The policy challenge going forward is to devise accountability systems that raise the ceiling as well as the floor. This is partly about fairness: It’s wrong for any child to miss out on academic challenges at school, and we should do everything we can to develop the full potential of all our students, including high achievers. We must also remember, though, that the country’s future economic competitiveness, scientific leadership, and national security depend disproportionately on how successfully we maximize the learning of our ablest children. If we want tomorrow’s scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors to “look like America,” our schools need to take special pains with the education of high-ability kids from disadvantaged circumstances. They, too, should have the chance to realize the American Dream.

There’s a political argument as well. How can we expect parents to support public education when many of their children aren’t a priority for the schools they attend?

And there’s a powerful case to be made for accelerating social mobility by educating high-ability, low-income children. These are the poor kids—many of them from minority groups—who have the best chance to succeed in selective universities, become leaders in their communities, and climb the ladder to the middle class. Yet they are also the kids most dependent on the education system to recognize and draw out their potential. Research from Fordham, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and elsewhere shows that these low-income “high flyers” are likeliest to “lose altitude” as they make their way through school. The result is an “excellence gap” rivaling the “achievement gaps” that have been our policy preoccupation.

NCLB-style accountability is partly to blame for that. After all, low-income high achievers are likely to attend high-poverty schools, which face the greatest pressure to raise the test scores of their lowest-performing students and neglect their top pupils. They’re also schools that typically face a host of other challenges.

Going forward, policy makers who care about their low-income high achievers should take full advantage of their newfound authority under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to ensure that their schools have ample incentives to educate those children, and all children, to the max.

Mindful of both the challenges the country faces and the new opportunity that state leaders have to set matters right, the analysis in High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA does two things. First, it advances specific ideas for how state accountability systems can be redesigned to demand strong performance and growth from high-achieving students while meeting the requirements set forth in ESSA. Second, it rates current (or proposed) accountability systems in the fifty states and the District of Columbia based on how well they draw attention to high achievers. The evidence, regrettably, is that few of them are doing it well today, which is to say that few now incentivize their public schools to pay attention to learning gains among those who have already cleared the proficiency hurdle. 

Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon, and South Carolina are the only states that can be considered leaders on this issue. By contrast, just four states base a majority of schools’ summative ratings on "growth for all students," though this is the best way to evaluate a school’s effect on student achievement. Seven states and the District of Columbia assign no weight to this measure. Only five states treat high-achieving students as a subgroup and separately report their results at the school level.

On a slightly less negative note, fourteen states and D.C. rate or plan to rate schools’ achievement using a model, such as a performance index, that gives additional credit for students achieving at an “advanced” level. That’s good. But it’s not much.

The problem is sizable, in other words, but the opportunity to solve it is at hand. The report offers a number of recommendations to state policy makers, who have the opportunity to dramatically upgrade their current accountability systems. The authors also offer one recommendation to the Department of Education, which is finalizing its ESSA regulations: Going forward, Washington should allow states to rate academic achievement using a performance index that gives schools additional credit for getting students to an advanced level.

The impetus for the analysis was an explicit desire to influence these policy makers in the short term. Yes, much of what was unearthed about state accountability systems could be out of date within a year’s time. But that same year offers state leaders a rare opportunity to do things differently and better. Many issues will be debated as states design their new accountability systems. The hope is that the educational needs of high-achieving students get the attention they deserve—and that they didn’t get in the NCLB era.

Let us say to educators and policy makers who are already retooling their state accountability systems: Those children are counting on you. Their futures, and the nation’s, depend in no small part on the decisions you are making.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.