School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings

Does school accountability boost students’ long-term prospects? That’s the question this new study by David Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks seeks to answer by examining the impact of accountability pressure in the Texas public high schools in the 1990s. (Jennings, you might recall, once assumed the moniker “Eduwonkette.”) Most agree that the series of tough policies that the Lone Star State instituted during this era, whereby school performance on state tests was made public and tied to various awards and sanctions, was the foundation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The system had several components: 1) Districts received accountability ratings based on their lowest rated schools, which was intended to pressure them to improve those schools; 2) schools were rated based on the percentage of students who received passing scores; 3) the overall rating was based in part on the lowest scoring subgroup, incentivizing school leaders to focus on the worst performing students; and 4) students were required to pass tenth-grade exams in math, reading, and writing in order to graduate. Because math pass rates were nearly always the stumbling block to underperforming schools obtaining a higher rating, how students performed on the tenth-grade math test can be considered a test of the influence of accountability. The analysts tracked five cohorts of first-time ninth-grade students from Spring 1995 to Spring 1999, comparing similar students within the same schools but across cohorts. The upshot: Schools at risk of receiving a low rating responded by increasing the math scores for all students. Students at these schools were later likelier to accumulate more math credits and graduate from high school. On top of that, they were more liable to attend college and earn more at age twenty-five. In particular, students who had previously failed an eighth-grade exam ended up around 14 percent more likely to attend college and 12 percent more likely to get a degree. However, in schools not in danger of a low rating (or those that could feasibly try for a higher rating), the accountability policies had no overall impact—and in some cases, there were even declines in later earnings for low achievers. Finally, schools that were close to being “recognized” (a relatively high rating) responded by classifying more low-scoring students as eligible for special education, perhaps in order to take them out of the accountability pool. The bottom line? Even this crude accountability policy proves that properly applied incentives can translate into long-term betterment of people’s lives.

SOURCE: David J. Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks, “School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings,” NBER Working Paper No. 19444 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2013).

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