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Students in Struggling Schools More Likely to Attend, But Misbehave, Study Finds

Washington, D.C.

As pressure increases for schools who miss accountability benchmarks, students become less likely to be late or miss class—but more likely to get into fights and get reported or suspended for misbehavior. 

That's the conclusion of a new study by Duke University researchers John B. Holbein and Helen F. "Sunny" Ladd, for the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER. It suggests that just as there may be a tendency to focus academically on tested subjects, like math and reading, schools may also focus on improving student behaviors measured for accountability purposes.

"Coming to school and behaving well once they are in school; we're thinking of these two as proxies for noncognitive skills," Ladd explained at a symposium on the research here on Friday. In elementary and middle school, absences are also part of a school's accountability benchmarks, while other behavior is not taken into account.

Using North Carolina administrative data for 11,000 schools from 2007 to 2012, the researchers compared student behavior in schools that barely missed making adequate yearly progress to schools that just made AYP. Because the accountability designation is based on a complicated calculation of subgroup scores and statistical safeguards, schools that make or miss the benchmarks can be nearly identical in a given year, but schools that don't meet accountability benchmarks face censure and increasing sanctions, up to and including removal of the principal and overhaul of the school.

In the year after a school was identified as not making adequate yearly progress, Ladd, a public policy professor, and Holbein, a postdoctoral candidate in the same field, found that on average, censured schools had 280 fewer absences, .5 fewer per student, and 80 fewer tardies, or .2 fewer per student. While that may not seem like much, studies show that absences quickly add up, particularly in early grades, and students who miss 10 percent or more of school are at higher risk of failing and even dropping out of school in later years.

Tellingly, the increase in attendance was only significant in elementary and middle schools, where they are part of accountability, and not in high schools, where the attendance benchmark is generally replaced with graduation rates.

"We think these results are quite suggestive and interesting," Ladd said, noting that students in the highest-scoring 25 percent of students were those most likely to show an increase in attendance. "It could be schools are putting more pressure on those students to come to school, because those students are going to lead to higher test scores."

 Fighting, Sex Offenses, and More

Given both the accountability pressure and the evidence of damage caused by absenteeism, it makes sense that schools would combat truancy as a low-hanging fruit. But the researchers also found that a slew of other misbehaviors increased significantly in schools in the year after being marked for improvement, and black students and the lowest-performing students were disproportionately affected.

On average, in the year after missing AYP, schools had:

  • 21 more out-of-school suspensions, a 16 percent increase;
  • 14 percent more fights, more than one more per school;
  • 20 percent more instances of major "disruption"; and
  • 12 percent to 13 percent more drug possession and sexual offenses.

These misbehaviors were the highest among the lowest-performing students and among black students, though Ladd said she was surprised to also find increases among the top performers. 

"At the lower level, we think there's just pressure being put on students, and they might not have the capacity to withstand that pressure," Ladd said, adding, "These are the groups most likely to be left behind."

 Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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