The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2001, was a high stakes federal accountability reform for education systems in the United States. The act mandated that a high percentage of students within a state had to meet minimum proficiency levels. By 2014, this mandated proficiency level increased to around 100 percent of students. There has been much debate about the potential merits and unintended consequences of NCLB. Empirical evidence has found that NCLB may have improved student achievement; however, the act may have also decreased teacher job security while creating other perverse incentives.
The evidence on the effects of NCLB is mixed, and most studies have used difference in difference analytic strategies to attempt to dampen biased estimates. Since the federal government did not randomly assign the given policy to treatment and control groups, no true experiments will ever exist on the topic. Since this is the case, we must rely heavily on theory and examine the methodological rigor of the quasi-experimental evaluations.
Reback, Rockoff, and Schwartz (2014) performed the first nationwide study of the impacts of NCLB on individual incentives. They created a measure of “risk of failure” among very similar schools in different states and argued that this captured the effect of the policy since schools in higher risk environments received stronger doses of the treatment. Since we are comparing schools in completely different states, we should be skeptical about the strength of this study. However, let us assume that the results are experimentally sound and true.
They found that NCLB had positive impacts on student’s enjoyment of learning and academic achievement. While a student survey could indicate that they enjoyed their learning environment more, it is not clear that this outcome is policy relevant or even informative. Are students enjoying learning more due to increased stimulation, or because they only have to focus on standardized tests? I enjoy my time when I skip the gym and eat chips while watching a movie; however, the task of exercising and eating healthy, while less joyful, is more rewarding to me and others in society. The result that NCLB increased test scores may sound beneficial at first, but it is unsurprising and perhaps even harmful.
If we focus our efforts on standardized testing, and attach rewards and punishments to scores, should we not expect scores to increase? Suppose we allocated a billion dollars per student each year so that they could improve their test scores. Would that be worth the investment? At what point would diminishing returns set in, and what level of achievement is optimal for an individual? Perhaps most importantly, what is the opportunity cost of allocating those funds towards academic achievement?
Obviously, if we forced all children to focus on standardized tests every day for thirteen years of their lives, they would realize higher scores. However, doing so would harm students’ unobservable non-cognitive skills such as effort, self-control, creativity, determination, and conscientiousness. Those skills are arguably more important than test scores, so we need to realize that maximizing test scores could be harmful. In addition, there is a huge disconnect in the literature between test scores and long-term outcomes. Some studies show large test score impacts without changing graduation rates or incomes, while other studies show small test score effects (or none at all) with large impacts on
Indeed, Reback, Rockoff, and Schwartz (2014) found that NCLB caused teachers to allocate more time towards subject-specific instruction rather than whole-class instruction. They also found that NCLB had negative impacts on teachers’ feelings of job security. This result could go a few different ways. It may be that teachers perform better when they feel like their job is less secure. Since there is a specific punishment tied to job performance, teachers have the incentive to improve. However, they would have a stronger incentive to improve according to what is measured on the tests. Tests attempt to measure cognitive skills, so this could harm non-cognitive skills. Furthermore, teachers make a cost-benefit decision to stay in or leave the workforce. Since this policy would be an additional cost in the decision, higher-quality teachers, at the margin, may opt out of the schooling industry. Instead, these teachers may pursue jobs in other industries with higher benefit / cost ratios, resulting in lower quality education for children in the long-run.
Ballou and Springer (2017) pointed out that proficiency levels, like the ones used in NCLB, created perverse incentives about teacher focus. Theoretically, if there were students “at the bubble,” or just below the cutoff score, teachers would have an incentive to focus on those students to improve quality ratings. This may be great for the bubble students, but could be disastrous for students at the tails of distributions. Ballou and Springer (2017) do not find evidence to support this claim; however, they do point out that other evaluations have found the opposite result. They use a grade-year fixed effects strategy to compare the effects of high-stakes testing on students in different locations of the distribution; however, they are not able to compare individual students to themselves over time. Ballou and Springer (2017) also found suggestive evidence that NCLB could have had negative impacts on advantaged students at the top of the distribution of scores.
What Should We Do?
The empirical evidence suggests that NCLB improved test scores and student enjoyment, and decreased teacher job security. These results follow intuition; if rewards and punishments are attached to standardized tests, student achievement (on those types of tests) will increase and teachers will feel more pressure. Nonetheless, it is unclear whether this type of reform is beneficial overall, especially since schools can shape unobservable, non-cognitive skills as well.
Perhaps we need to focus on some other important questions instead. What is the socially optimal level of student proficiency on standardized tests given our budget constraints? What are the unintended impacts of focusing too much on academics? How can we decide what amount is best for what types of children, and who ought to make that decision? Should we force all students to focus on the same material, even though that is sure to produce negative impacts on millions of children; or should we allow individual families to decide how to reach the educational goals of their individual children?
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