Subgroup Accountability ‘Shines a Light’ on School Performance

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A new study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis finds that, when it comes to accountability, subgroup-specific pressure works. The analysis suggests that, when accountability pressure is tied to the performance of specific groups of students, those groups tend to improve more than they did before the pressure was in place.

The article, entitled “Shining a Light or Fumbling in the Dark? The Effects of NCLB’s Subgroup Accountability on Student Achievement,” uses data from North Carolina to track trends in black, Hispanic, and low-income student performance between 2000 and 2008. In 2003, North Carolina began assigning schools to improvement designations under the No Child Left Behind accountability provisions, which require schools to meet annual proficiency rate targets for all groups of students. The new research finds that black, Hispanic, and low-income students in schools facing accountability threats improved more, on average, after NCLB was implemented than before. For example, after the new accountability rules were in place, low-income students in schools that did not reach their Annual Yearly Progress goals started to catch up to their peers in schools that did make AYP. Moreover, students improved more after the group to which they belonged failed to make AYP than after a different group did not meet their target, suggesting that the accountability pressure effectively highlighted areas of improvement in schools.

The study’s findings only apply to one particular accountability design: subgroup proficiency rate targets. Yet the findings suggest that a subgroup-specific approach to accountability helps pinpoint groups of students that schools could better serve.

Nearly half of the states already have submitted applications to the U.S. Department of Education seeking waivers from the accountability requirements of NCLB. Among the 11 states that won first-round waivers, some intend to maintain NCLB’s subgroups. Others plan to use different groupings.

A number of the first 11 states are now using “super groups,” which are either combinations of  NCLB’s subgroups or new groups based on  students’ past performance (previously low-performing students, for instance). Advocates for the use of super groups contend that they will likely encompass more students at a school than do the NCLB subgroups. Indeed, super groups should help states get around the “N size problem,” which occurs when there are too few students in a group for it to “count.” But the downside to super groups is their capacity to obscure the performance of groups that have traditionally been underserved. Schools could respond to super-group accountability by focusing on students they perceive to be higher performing, while inadequately meeting the needs of low-income students, students of color, students who are learning English, or students with disabilities.

As more states roll out their new accountability plans, it is important for advocates to closely monitor the performance of low-income students and students of color within these newly defined groups, and to pay attention to how schools, school districts, and states respond when these students struggle.

The Education Trust recently organized a webinar to inform education practitioners about the details of various waiver applications and their potential impacts on subgroups of students. For more information on the content in the first 11 approved applications, including their accountability plans, check out The Education Trust’s waiver summaries and analyses.

— Marni Bromberg