Accountability Incentives: Do Schools Practice Educational Triage?

Article excerpt

"Take out your classes' latest benchmark scores," the consultant told
them, "and divide your students into three groups. Color the 'safe
cases,' or kids who will definitely pass, green. Now, here's the most
important part: identify the kids who are 'suitable cases for
treatment.' Those are the ones who can pass with a little extra help.
Color them yellow. Then, color the kids who have no chance of passing
this year and the kids that don't count--the 'hopeless cases'--red. You
should focus your attention on the yellow kids, the bubble kids. They'll
give you the biggest return on your investment."
--Jennifer Booher-Jennings, "Rationing Education in an Era of
Accountability" Phi Delta Kappan International (June 2006)

Increasingly frequent journalistic accounts report that schools are responding to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by engaging in what has come to be known as "educational triage." Although these accounts rely almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, the prospect is of real concern. The NCLB accountability system divides schools into those in which a sufficient number of students score at the proficient level or above on state tests to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks ("make AYP") and those that fail to make AYP. The system gives no credit to schools for moving students closer to proficiency or for advancing already-proficient students. If schools intent on meeting minimum competency benchmarks practice educational triage, they dedicate a disproportionate amount of their limited resources to "bubble kids," students who might otherwise perform just below the proficiency threshold. While these marginally performing students are likely to benefit from increased attention, reallocation of instructional attention leads to a tradeoff whereby the achievement gains of the marginally performing students come at the expense of both the lowest- and highest-performing students.

With congressional proceedings on NCLB's reauthorization under way, the time is opportune to take a hard look at educational triage claims. If the current law's minimum competency standard produces gains among students near the proficiency threshold but disadvantages others, the rules of the accountability system need to be modified, perhaps to reward improvements across the entire achievement distribution.

To search for evidence of educational triage, I analyzed three years of test-score and other data on 300,000 students in public schools in a western state. I found none. I concluded that these schools were not responding to NCLB by trading off achievement among students with different baseline levels. Rather, they were successful at raising the performance of students who were otherwise at risk of failing the state test without sacrificing the performance of lower-and higher-performing students. Even in failing schools, students above the proficiency threshold made gains that were greater than one would expect if schools were concentrating resources on students near the threshold. When academic achievement is measured with test-score performance in this state, the much-politicized argument that NCLB compromises the educational needs and opportunities of high-performing, academically accelerated students holds no water.

The State's Accountability Program

The U.S. Department of Education in 2003 approved the state's accountability plan, which was designed to meet federal guidelines and regulations associated with NCLB. The plan requires all public schools in the state to meet proficiency standards in math and reading for all students and for each of 10 student subgroups, and to test a minimum of 95 percent of students in each subgroup to avoid sanctions. The accountability program measures students' content knowledge and skills using an Internet-enabled testing system developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a national nonprofit organization that provides assessment products and related services to school districts. …