The past 2 decades witnessed a marked increase in public attention to academic performance. Historically, concern about quality of the U.S. educational system has fluctuated, but rarely has there been a period of such intense interest in measuring and comparing performance of students, teachers, and schools. Whereas in earlier eras the measurement of performance focused on summary indicators, such as graduation from high school, recent efforts utilize more refined measures. Examining the current state of academic performance—defined broadly as how well students in schools achieve the goals established by and for them—requires examination of changes in performance measurement and the changes in the consequences of performance.
Two broad reforms in U.S. education over the past decade drive the current focus on academic performance: the development and implementation of standards-based education and the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). Both reforms sharpened policy focus on measuring educational performance.
Stemming from anxiety about the conditions of U.S. schools following the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, the standards-based movement emerged. The report warned that the educational foundations of the nation were being “eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity” and that a primary factor contributing to this condition was the lack of rigorous standards in U.S. schools.
Developing and implementing a set of educational standards was held to be the key to addressing the mediocrity identified in A Nation at Risk. The core idea of educational standards is that there are sets of basic knowledge and skills that students of a particular grade level should master, such mastery to be evaluated using a series of tests. Reform rests on the notion that educational improvement will occur when rigorous academic (content) standards are set, student performance against these standards is assessed, and then students and teachers are held accountable for meeting these standards. The 1990s thus witnessed a substantial investment of energy by educational policymakers in the development and implementation of content and performance standards. Nearly all states have implemented academic standards and all but two states now have academic standards in the core subjects of mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies.
No Child Left Behind
Following the initiatives of standards-based reforms, particularly the framework of establishment of performance standards, NCLB brought about a number of significant changes in the U.S. education system, particularly in substantially expanding the role of the federal government.
The first of NCLB’s four key program elements is stronger accountability for results. The act established a system of requirements for states to fulfill, including the creation of standards for what children in Grades 3 through 8 should know in the subjects of mathematics and reading, as well as a set of assessments to measure how many children have met the state standards. This translated to a substantial expansion of the testing required in school, with students (excluding some exceptions) tested each year in Grades 3 through 8 and at least once during Grades 10 through 12.
The passage of NCLB also served to increase interest in the performance of educational institutions. Schools must submit annual state-, district-, and school-level “report cards” of how many children achieved acceptable scores on the assessment. Under federal law, local districts must make available achievement data for each school through these report cards. As discussed in the next section, the data carry consequences, with rewards and penalties based on performance. Under NCLB, schools are also required to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward improvement in student performance. Although the formulae used to calculate and assess AYP are too complex and opaque to explore here, the central idea of the requirement is that districts must make annual gains in reducing the percentage of students who do not achieve at a proficient level.
The NCLB law is designed so that the primary consumers of data from the report cards are teachers, administrators, and parents; however, data on educational performance have found a much broader audience, with aggregated measures of test scores, graduation rates, and similar data now available in newspaper articles, and even as part of real estate ads.
Consequences of Performance
The increase in policy focus on performance has been accompanied by changes in the use of academic performance measures, with policies basing rewards and sanctions on test performance at the level of individual student, classroom, school, and district. At the student level, the past decade witnessed the widespread adoption of policies whereby grade retention is tied to performance on standardized assessment. Students in the majority of states are now subject to educational statutes that tie promotion to performance on a standardized assessment—and those who are unable to attain a minimum score on such an assessment are required to repeat the school grade. Similarly, a number of states and districts are working to create systems to tie teachers’ pay and other career goods to measures of school or classroom performance. These efforts, however, face significant difficulty in their creation and implementation, as teacher rewards historically rest exclusively on tenure and level of education.
Moreover, under NCLB individual districts are now held accountable for the performance of the schools, as measured by standardized assessments in a method analogous to school-level accountability. The law specifies that 95 percent of the students in the district must be tested, as well as 95 percent of subgroups. With the performance system as constructed, there are specific sanctions for schools and districts that do not meet AYP goals. Schools that do not make AYP goals by this measure are subject to an increasing set of sanctions, such as replacement of school staff, implementation of a new curriculum, and complete “restructuring” of the school, a step involving dissolution of the school.
Although the intent of the policy changes is to increase the measurement and consequences of academic performance to influence instructional practice and effort, these efforts to tie rewards and sanctions also have yielded a number of unintended consequences. Newspaper accounts report a number of episodes of students, teachers, and even administrators cheating on high-stakes exams. Similarly, other reports have revealed students being classified as special needs (a category with special testing provisions under NCLB) to avoid their inclusion in the school’s performance measures.
Another unintended consequence of the high-stakes testing regime is that teachers and schools may focus resources disproportionately on those students at the margin of passing the test. For example, one study of students in a Texas public school told of teachers focusing the bulk of their effort on students identified as “bubble kids,” those who were just below passing but could conceivably pass with additional help. All of these triage and cheating actions are understandable in light of the heightened stakes of performance, as tangible rewards and penalties are tied to test results.
Persistence of Performance Differences
Proponents argue that both standards-based reforms and NCLB can serve as the basis for improving both excellence and equity in education. The NCLB Web site explicitly makes this point: The law is “designed to help close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority students and their peers.” Yet, despite the attention to the measures of student performance and revisions in the measurement and consequences of performance, significant gaps in performance persist—and they persist in the face of a federal program designed to address the historical gaps in educational performance. One innovative aspect of NCLB is that it requires performance results to be disaggregated by gender, race/ethnicity, English language proficiency, migrant status, disability status, and socioeconomic status. However, gaps in assessed performance persist. Moreover, there is evidence that poor and nonwhite students are increasingly classified as special education or having educational needs that exclude them from the pool of students tested, a strategy designed to meet performance targets without addressing students’ educational needs.
Future of Academic Performance
While academic performance will almost certainly remain a topic of importance in the future, it is not clear whether or how the current system of performance measurement, rewards, and sanctions will persist. NCLB is up for reauthorization in 2008 and, at present, its prospects for renewal are uncertain. A growing chorus of critics of testing programs have repeatedly made the argument that these programs limit student learning to only those topics tested and that what is tested is a narrow slice of what students should know, ignoring skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. Whether and to what extent these criticisms bring about changes in the measurement and consequences of educational performance remains an open question.
- Booher-Jennings, Jennifer. 2005. “Below the Bubble: ‘Educational Triage’ and the Texas Accountability System.” American Educational Research Journal 42(2):231-68.
- Carnoy, Martin and Susanna Loeb. 2002. “Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 24(4):305-31.
- Jacob, Brian A. and Steven D. Levitt. 2003. “Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the Prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(3):843-77.
- Ravitch, Diane. 1995. National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
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