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Cool People You Should Know: David Figlio

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Economist David Figlio, who has extensively studied the intended and unintended consequences of accountability systems, recently made a move from the University of Florida over to Northwestern. Figlio has a knack for the creative - but still substantive - paper: for example, see his papers on the unintended consequences of accountability systems including Food for Thought? The Effects of School Accountability Plans on School Nutrition, Accountabilty, Ability, and Disability: Gaming the System?, and Testing, Crime, and Punishment. More recently, he mounted an impressive survey of Florida principals to identify their responses to accountability pressures. (See Feeling the Florida Heat? How Low-Performing Schools Respond to Voucher and Accountability Programs.)

In our chat on testing and accountability on Tuesday, Figlio provided a terrific overview of the accountability literature in response to Sherman Dorn's question, which is worth reprinting in full here:
I think that the evidence is becoming clearer that many of the hopes of high-stakes accountability advocates and many of the fears of high-stakes accountability critics are correct -- school administrators and teachers can and do respond to accountability pressures, at least at the margins.

A number of recent studies have shown that schools subject to greater accountability pressure tend to improve student test performance in reading and mathematics to a meaningful degree -- my recent study of Florida with Cecilia Rouse, Jane Hannaway and Dan Goldhaber (working paper on the website of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or caldercenter.org), for instance, suggests test score gains of one-tenth of a standard deviation in reading and math associated with a school getting an "F" grade relative to a "D" grade. We find that these test score gains persist for several years after the student leaves the affected school. Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University has a new working paper studying New York City's rollout of school grades that suggests that responses to grading pressure seem to happen immediately -- grades released in November were mainfested in test score changes in the same winter/spring.

In the case of my study with Rouse, Hannaway and Goldhaber, we try to look inside the "black box" by studying a wide variety of potentially productive school responses, and it appears that Florida schools responded to accountability pressures by changing some of their instructional policies and practices, rather than "gaming the system."

The rapid and apparently productive response of school personnel to school accountability pressure suggests that educators are, at least to some degree "magisters economici," responding to the incentives associated with the system. And this makes getting the system right so important, because if schools and teachers respond quickly to incentives, the incentives had better be what society/policymakers want.

Many people raise concerns about teaching to the test, and there is certainly evidence of this -- consistently, estimated effects of accountability on high-stakes tests are larger than those on low-stakes tests -- though the low-stakes test results tend to be meaningful still, especially with respect to math. Harder to get a handle on is the narrowing of the curriculum to concentrate on the measured subjects; there is a lot of suggestive evidence that this is taking place to a small degree at the elementary level, though studies of the effects of accountability on performance on low-stakes subjects typically don't find that performance on these subjects suffers -- but of course, those subjects are still being measured with tests. Still there is certainly the incentive to reduce focus on "low-stakes" subjects. One possible solution for those concerned about low-stakes subjects being given short shrift would be to impose requirements such as minimum time spent of instruction or portfolio reviews.

There is a lot of evidence that accountability systems can have unintended consequences that are predicted by the magister economicus model. Derek Neal and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach at the University of Chicago note that accountability systems based on getting students above a given performance threshold tend to induce schools to focus on the kids on the "bubble." I've found that that type of system may lead schools to employ selective discipline in an apparent attempt to shape the testing pool, or even to utilize the school meals program to artificially boost student test performance by "carbo-loading" students for peak short-term brain activity. These types of unintended consequences are much more likely in accountability systems based on the "status" model of getting students above a proficiency threshold, rather than the "gains" model of evaluating schools based on how much these students gain.

But there's a tradeoff here. The more we evaluate schools based on test score gains, where gaming incentives are lower, the more the focus is taken off of poorly-performing students whom society/policymakers would like to see attain proficiency. How the system is designed is crucially important.
You can find the transcript for the chat on testing and accountability here.
3 Comments

I read part of David Figlio's paper on disability and accountability ("Gaming the System") from the link you provided. His study showed an increase in students labeled as "disabled" (and exempt from NCLB testing) after the NCLB accountability provisions went into effect.

In my opinion, there is little many school systems can do to increase student achievement on a large scale, given a fixed budget, and absent the ability to make serious structural changes to the American educational system.

As a result, NCLB seems to create a mix of small educational gains (if that) combined with a good amount of "gaming the system." These "games" include focusing on students "on the bubble" of reaching the proficiency mark, teaching test-taking skills, encouraging students who are not doing well to drop out of school, retaining low-performing students to prevent them from entering a grade in which they will be subject to testing, and many other actions.

I'd say Attorney DC is half-right... I think real substantive improvements are likely to be slow, and pressure for short-term gains push administrators to look for short-term solutions.

But I do think the "disaggregation" of accountability data has helped schools focus on where real problems are. In our district I see weak scores for English learners, and weak math scores prompting real thought about instruction -- but the changes aren't likely to make more than marginal improvements in next year's scores.

Rachel: Insightful comments, as always. I agree that any substantive improvements will be slow, and that schools will frequently react with "games" in order to avoid NCLB sanctions.

I also tend to believe that the data NCLB provides is useful. However, I think it would much more useful if: (1) Actual scores were reported rather than number of pupils per "category" of proficiency - which, of course, encourages gaming the "bubble kids." and (2) A uniforme test were used for the whole country, rather than state tests which can be tweaked to make more or fewer schools in any given state reach the passing mark.

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  • Attorney DC: Rachel: Insightful comments, as always. I agree that any substantive read more
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