How educational policies influence schools’ behavior is of considerable importance for sound policy-making. Policymakers, of course, want to put into place policies that encourage “good” behavior, while not enacting policies that promote “bad” behavior.

In this report, Rajashri Chakrabarti of the New York Federal Reserve Bank examines whether Florida schools, facing sanctions under the state’s A-F accountability system, behaved strategically by over-identifying students as special education (SPED) or English language learning (ELL). This would be an example of “bad” behavior—where schools “game the system” (knowingly misidentifying a student) out of self-interest.

Chakrabarti describes the incentives as this: Under Florida’s 1999 A-F accountability reform, many SPED and ELL students’ test scores were excluded from a school’s rating. As such, low-performing schools (F-rated) were “incentivized” to classify weak students into excluded categories. The incentive was particularly strong for a school trying to escape the sanction of becoming voucher-eligible, if they received a second F rating. But there’s a twist: concurrent with the 1999 A-F reform, Florida enacted a voucher program for all SPED students—the McKay Scholarship—evaporating a school’s incentive to classify its weaker students as SPED.

The key finding: low-performing schools responded in-line with the policy incentives. ELL populations in grades 3 and 4 (though not in grade 5) significantly increased immediately after the reforms occurred. This suggests that low-performing schools manipulated the ELL classification—in Florida, an ELL Committee could subjectively determine whether a student is ELL. As for the SPED populations in these schools? They didn’t increase significantly—the McKay Scholarship, then, removed schools’ incentive to classify SPED students in a strategic way.

All this suggests that Florida schools operated according to the incentives built into Florida’s A-F accountability and voucher policies. The bottom-line: Schools respond to incentives—and state policy makers must keep this in mind as they make policy.

SOURCE: Rajashri Chakrabarti, “Accountability with Voucher Threats, Responses, and the Test-Taking Population: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida,” Education Finance and Policy 8 (2013): 121-167.

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