High Stakes for High Achievers, Part I

State Accountability in the Age of ESSA

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No Child Left Behind meant well, but it had a pernicious flaw: It created strong incentives for schools to focus all their energy on helping low-performing students get over a modest “proficiency” bar. Meanwhile, it ignored the educational needs of high achievers, who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happened in the classroom. Those most hurt by this approach were high-achieving, low-income students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act offers a powerful opportunity to change that. Fordham’s latest report, High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA, examines the extent to which states’ current (or planned) accountability systems attend to the educational needs of high-achieving students; it also explains how states can take advantage of ESSA to create systems that serve all students.

Key findings include:

  • Only four states base at least half of their schools’ summative ratings on growth for all students, which should be the primary way that a school's effect on achievement is measured. 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.
  • Fourteen states and the District of Columbia 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. Draft federal regulations appear to make these models illegal under the new law.
  • Overall, state accountability systems do very little to encourage schools to pay attention to high-achieving students. Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon, and South Carolina are the only states that can be considered leaders on this issue.

The report offers a number of recommendations to state policy makers, who have the opportunity to dramatically upgrade current accountability systems, as well as one recommendation for the U.S. Department of Education, which is currently in the process of finalizing its ESSA regulations: Allow states to rate academic achievement using a performance index that gives schools additional credit for getting students to an advanced level.

High-achieving students were an afterthought when No Child Left Behind was crafted fifteen years ago. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Table 1: Results for States without Summative School Ratings

(Click on any of the following state names to view its profile.)

South Carolina
Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Tennessee
California, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Dakota

Table 2: Results for States with Summative School Ratings

Arkansas, Oregon
Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia
Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia


Click here to download a presentation of the report's findings!


August 31, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Find Your State's Profile)
August 31, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Main Report)
August 31, 2016
Foreword & Executive Summary


Pathway to Success: Columbus Collegiate Academy embodies high expectations for all students

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Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA) epitomizes the relentlessness and vision necessary to close achievement gaps in urban education. Started in the basement of a church with 57 students in 2008, CCA evolved into one of the city’s top-performing middle schools. That success jump-started the United Schools Network, now serving 600 students in four buildings.
Through this profile of one CCA eighth-grader, you can clearly see the benefits of the school’s relentless focus on academics and high expectations both academically and behaviorally. We hope her story reminds you what is possible when we invest in and empower high-quality charter schools and what is at stake when we don't.

Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools

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This Fordham study, conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, dives into one of the most promising—and contentious—issues in education today: virtual schools. What type of students choose them? Which online courses do students take? Do virtual schools lead to improved outcomes for kids?
With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its fully online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio boasts one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector has also grown tremendously, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years—more than any other type of public school. Using four years of comprehensive student-level data to examine Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds: 
  • E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
  • Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
  • Across all grades and subjects, students who attend e-schools perform worse on state tests than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, even accounting for prior achievement. In contrast, students in grades 4–8 who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools perform slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math. Results are mixed but modest for students in grade ten.
  • Findings also suggest that e-schools drag down the performance of the entire charter sector.
Online schools offer an efficient way to diversify—and even democratize—education in a connected world. Yet they have received negative, but well-deserved, attention concerning their poor academic performance, attrition rates, and ill capacity to educate the types of students who enroll in them. This is especially true in Ohio, where virtual schools have failed (as yet) to realize their potential.
Using a slightly different analytical approach than CREDO’s Online Charter School Study (2015), Dr. Ahn’s results corroborate the disappointing findings on Ohio’s online schools. Bold changes in policy and practice are needed to ensure that these schools better serve their students. For advocates of online learning and educational choice, the work has just begun.


August 02, 2016
Information Graphic - Ohio's Virtual Charter Schools
August 02, 2016
Foreword and Executive Summary
August 02, 2016
Conclusion and Takeaways


Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects

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Shortly after Ohio lawmakers enacted a new voucher program in 2005, the state budget office wrote in its fiscal analysis, “The Educational Choice Scholarships are not only intended to offer another route for student success, but also to impel the administration and teaching staff of a failing school building to improve upon their students’ academic performance.” Today, the EdChoice Scholarship Program provides publicly funded vouchers to more than eighteen thousand Buckeye students who were previously assigned to some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, located primarily in low-income urban communities. Yet remarkably little else is known about the program.

Which children are using EdChoice when given the opportunity? Is the initiative faithfully working as its founders intended? Are participating students blossoming academically in their private schools of choice? Does the increased competition associated with EdChoice lead to improvements in the public schools that these kids left?

Fordham’s new study utilizes longitudinal student data from 2003–04 to 2012–13 to answer these and other important questions. 

Three key findings:

  • Student selection: The students participating in EdChoice are overwhelmingly low-income and minority children. But relative to pupils who are eligible for vouchers but choose not to use them, the participants in EdChoice are somewhat higher-achieving and less economically disadvantaged.
  • Competitive effects: EdChoice modestly improved the achievement of the public-school students who were eligible for a voucher but did not use it. The competition associated with the introduction of EdChoice appears to have spurred these public-school improvements.
  • Participant effects: The students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools. Only voucher students assigned to relatively high-performing EdChoice eligible public schools could be credibly studied.

Dr. David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University, led the research.

In the Media

July 07, 2016
Ohio’s voucher students fare worse than public-school peers, study finds
July 07, 2016
Ohio Study Latest to Show Poor Voucher Results: 7 Theories Dissect The Trend
July 07, 2016
Ohio Vouchers Have Mixed Impact on Student Performance, Study Finds

Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey

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In Common Core Math in the K-8 Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey, Jennifer Bay Williams, Ann Duffett, and David Griffith take a close look at how educators are implementing the Common Core math standards in classrooms across the nation. A nationally representative survey of over one thousand teachers reveals that they are increasingly familiar with the Common Core and believe that it will benefit students. Yet our findings also point to several areas that warrant mid-course corrections if we’re going to fulfill the standards’ more rigorous expectations.    

Here are a few key takeaways:

  1. Teachers like the Common Core but they don’t think all of their students and parents are equally enamored. Most teachers view the standards positively, believing that they will enhance their students’ math skills and prepare them for college and beyond. But they add that students’ and parents’ views are considerably less rosy. Some of their students have “math anxiety,” they say, and 85 percent believe that “reinforcement of math learning at home is declining because parents don’t understand the way that math is being taught.”
  2. Teachers know what’s in the Common Core—and they’re teaching it at the appropriate grade level. Though it may seem unsurprising, it is notable that teachers are able to identify from a list of topics (some of which are “decoys”) those that reflect the standards—and they report teaching them at the grade levels where they’re meant to be taught. Once upon a time, teachers shut their doors and did their own thing. Now we have many instructors teaching to the same high standards nationwide.
  3. Further, they’re changing how they teach. More teachers report incorporating the standards into their teaching, including the 64 percent of teachers who say they  increasingly require students to explain in writing how they arrived at their answers.
  4. But teaching multiple methods can yield multiple woes. The Common Core math standards require that students “check their answers to problems using a different method.” And sure enough, 65 percent of K–5 teachers are teaching multiple methods more now than before the standards were implemented. But 53 percent of teachers also agree that students are frustrated when they are asked to learn different ways of solving the same problems.
  5. Teachers need support. While most teachers view the standards optimistically, some also report that their math materials are not aligned to the Common Core. What’s more, teachers with students below grade level tend to be more pessimistic about Common Core’s impact on their students. Finally, striking the right balance between conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and application has not been easy; teachers need more guidance about how to do so.   

Now is not the time to grow weary, but to roll up our sleeves and help teachers succeed.

Can you correctly identity some of the key findings from our report? 

Follow this link to take our quiz!

Click the graphic above to enlarge its size.


June 23, 2016
Foreword & Executive Summary
June 23, 2016
Discussion & Takeaways


Pathway to Success: DECA prepares students for rigors of college, realities of life

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Too much of what we hear about urban public schools in America is disheartening. A student’s zip code—whether she comes from poverty or economic privilege—often predicts her likelihood of educational (and later-life) success. Motivated by this unacceptable reality, some schools have worked relentlessly against the odds to deliver excellent educational opportunities to students no matter their background. The Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) is an island of excellence in one of Ohio’s poorest and most academically challenged districts. The unique opportunities and supports it provides to students—both academic and personal—are showcased briefly through the story of Khadidja, an inspiring young woman whose experience at DECA has helped forge a very different future than the one facing many of her urban peers.

A Policymaker's Guide to Improving School Leadership

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Whether the goal is to enhance instruction, create a culture of excellence, or broaden education options for parents, it’s nearly impossible to improve schools without strong leaders. This is hardly news; much evidence has indicated the importance of effective principals for decades. Yet reform strategies have largely lacked a coherent plan to upgrade leadership, even though it’s clearly a fundamental piece of the school improvement puzzle. This neglect is likely unintentional. Many states simply don’t know how to strengthen their cadre of leaders.

This is understandable. Most of the action around school leadership happens at the local level, far from state capitals. It is, after all, districts (and charter schools) that recruit, select, and place school leaders, and develop their expertise (or not). It’s easy for state officials and advocacy groups to prioritize leadership. Knowing which policy levers to pull is a lot harder.

That’s where A Policymaker's Guide to Improving School Leadership comes in. This online resource was designed to help policymakers and advocates focus on what makes a great principal—and how to get more of them in the schools that need them most.

We teamed up with our friends at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to produce the toolkit and recruited author Eric Lerum—an experienced education reform analyst and advocate—to generate the content.

Explore the website to see how states are developing their own strategies to strengthen leadership, as well as model legislation drafted by experts in the field.

The solutions presented in A Policymaker's Guide to Improving School Leadership are organized around five key policy areas:

  1. Pathways and Pipelines – How do principals become principals? What do preparation programs look like? What does it take to become a principal? How do districts and schools grow and recruit school leaders? How can states influence all of this for the better?
  2. Distributed Leadership – How can teachers lead from within their schools? How can principals delegate some of their authority to teachers? What role might states play?
  3. Autonomy and Empowerment – What authority do principals have to make decisions regarding personnel and budgets? Are principals empowered to move quickly and flexibly to meet the needs of their students, educators, and families? Which state policies might be standing in the way?
  4. Principal Evaluation – How are principals evaluated by district leaders? Is their performance measured by multiple indicators of school success, including the student progress and staff growth and satisfaction? Should states encourage a particular approach?
  5. Retention and Compensation – How are districts incentivizing the best principals to continue to lead? Do districts have the flexibility and tools to make school leadership an attractive long-term career prospect? How can states help?

Have we piqued your interest? You can find A Policymaker's Guide to Improving School Leadership here.

Additional resources:


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In the Media

May 02, 2016

Career and Technical Education in High School: Does It Improve Student Outcomes?

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Fordham’s latest study, by the University of Connecticut's Shaun M. Dougherty, uses data from Arkansas to explore whether students benefit from CTE coursework—and, more specifically, from focused sequences of CTE courses aligned to certain industries. The study also describes the current landscape, including which students are taking CTE courses, how many courses they’re taking, and which ones.

Key findings include: 

  • Students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, be employed, and earn higher wages.
  • CTE is not a path away from college: Students taking more CTE classes are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.
  • Students who focus their CTE coursework are more likely to graduate high school by twenty-one percentage points compared to otherwise similar students (and they see a positive impact on other outcomes as well).
  • CTE provides the greatest boost to the kids who need it most—boys, and students from low-income families.

Due to many decades of neglect and stigma against old-school “vo-tech,” high-quality CTE is not a meaningful part of the high school experience of millions of American students. It’s time to change that.


Additional resources:



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Education for Upward Mobility

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In Education for Upward Mobility, editor Michael J. Petrilli and more than a dozen leading scholars and policy analysts seek answers to a fundamental question: How can we help children born into poverty transcend their disadvantages and enter the middle class as adults? And in particular, what role can our schools play? 

Everyone agrees that expanding educational achievement is a clear route to expanding economic opportunity. Yet much of our public discourse ends there. Of course more young Americans need better education in order to succeed. But what kind of education? Is the goal “college for all”? What do we mean by “college”? Do our young people mostly need a strong foundation in academics? What about so-called “non-cognitive” skills? Should technical education make a comeback? 

Education for Upward Mobility provides fresh ideas for policymakers at every level of government; for leaders and policy analysts in education reform organizations; for philanthropists and associations; and for local superintendents and school board members. It combines the latest research evidence on relevant topics with in-depth explorations of promising practices on the ground, in real places, achieving real successes.

Chapters include:

  • “Education and the ‘Success Sequence,’” by Ron Haskins
  • “Big Payoff, Low Probability: Postsecondary Education and Economic Mobility in America,” by Andrew Kelly
  • “The Certification Revolution,” by Tamar Jacoby
  • “How Apprenticeship Approaches Can Spur Upward Mobility in the United States,” by Robert Lerman
  • “Small High Schools of Choice,” by Peter Meyer
  • “College-Prep High Schools for the Poor,” by Joanne Jacobs
  • “High-Quality Career and Technical Education,” by Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman
  • “Starting at Five is Too Late: Early Childhood Education and Upward Mobility,” by Elliot Regenstein, Bryce Marable, and Jelene Britton
  • “Poverty-Fighting Elementary Schools: Knowledge Acquisition is Job One,” by Robert Pondiscio
  • “Tracking in Middle School,” by Tom Loveless

Education for Upward Mobility is published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers and is available to purchase on its website or Amazon.

Launch Event:
"Education for Upward Mobility: The Reform Conservative's Education Agenda"

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March 17, 2016
Education for Upward Mobility PowerPoint

In the Media

July 11, 2016

Facing facts: Ohio's school report cards in a time of rising expectations

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On February 25, 2016, Ohio released report cards for the 2014-15 school year—the first in which the state administered next generation assessments. In conjunction with these new exams, state officials raised the minimum test score needed for students to be deemed “proficient.” As a result of these transitions, proficiency and achievement-based ratings fell across the state—a necessary reset of basic accountability measures in a time of rising expectations. This year’s report provides an overview of these changes, along with a presentation of data from national exams, suggesting that policymakers should go further to match Ohio’s definition of proficiency with a true college and career ready benchmark.

Since 2005, the Fordham Institute has conducted annual analyses of Ohio’s school report cards, with a particular focus on the performance of urban schools, both district and charter. This year’s analysis again takes a deep-dive look at the student achievement and school quality in the Ohio Big Eight areas. The key findings are as follows:

  • College and career readiness rates are extremely low in Ohio’s high-poverty urban areas—in the Big Eight cities, roughly 10 to 25 percent of students are reaching rigorous benchmarks.
  • According to the state’s achievement-based school ratings, urban schools almost universally receive low ratings (Ds and Fs). But when examining results from Ohio’s student growth measure (value added), variation in school quality emerges. Both urban charter and district schools receive high value added ratings, indicating the presence of schools that are helping students catch up with their peers.
  • Still, too many students in urban areas are trapped in low quality schools (receiving poor ratings on both the performance index and value added). Taken together, approximately 150,000 students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton attend a low-quality school.

Download the report to learn more about the performance of Ohio’s public schools, statewide and in its eight largest urban areas.