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Study Finds 'Bubble Student' Triage a Gut Reaction to Rising Standards

Washington, D.C.

One of the top concerns voiced by critics of federal education law is that the No Child Left Behind Act's accountability provisions force schools into "educational triage," neglecting both the lowest- and highest-performing students in favor of getting students near the academic cut-off point over the hump. A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill finds that the so-called "bubble kid effect" is a reality, particularly in struggling schools, but it suggests triage comes from the combination of strict federal accountability and rising state standards—not either one alone. 

UNC researchers Douglas Lee Lauen and S. Michael Gaddis studied the achievement records of 1.9 million North Carolina students in the years surrounding the state's increase in language arts and math standards in 2006 and 2008. The researchers found a 30 percent increase in the children who became "newly failing" under the ramped-up rigor of the new standards, and this led to an increased focus on students performing close to grade level in both math and reading.

The researchers found that after states increased the standards in a subject, students near the proficiency cut-off on the state test improved their test scores significantly more than students who performed in the top or bottom quarter of the class, if their school failed to make adequate yearly progress for federal accountability in the previous year. At schools that did make AYP, the test scores of students near the cut-off did not improve more than those of the lowest- or highest-performing students. (There's a very clear chart on the findings in the abstract here.) Moreover, the triage was most pronounced in the lowest-performing schools, with the lowest-performing students at those schools much less likely than the bubble kids to improve on math and reading tests in the year following a move to more rigorous standards in those subjects.

"The adverse effects are pretty worrisome in low-achieving schools," Lauen said in a presentation on the findings at the Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness conference. "The combination of status-based accountability and an increase in standards could be bad. This is important because virtually all states have adopted common-core state standards, which are generally considered to be more rigorous than most state standards."

Lauen added that, from preliminary analysis of the data, the triage effect looks like it is more of a short-term gut reaction on the part of educators than a permanent change in approach for schools. He suggested that state policymakers should consider an amnesty period for accountability when implementing tougher standards, to allow educators to get used to the new rigor, and to add measures of student growth to encourage schools to focus on improving the achievement of all children, not just the kids on the bubble.

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