School Ratings Rise As Graduation Rates Fall, University of Texas at Austin, Rice Study Shows

A new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University reveals that Texas' public school accountability system, the model for the national No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), directly contributes to lower graduation rates, a new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University shows.

Each year Texas public high schools lose at least 135,000 youth prior to graduation, and a disproportionately large number of those students are African American, Latino and English Language Learners (ELL).

By analyzing data from more than 271,000 students, the study found that 60 percent of African American students, 75 percent of Latino students and 80 percent of ELL students did not graduate within five years. The researchers found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent.

"High-stakes, test-based accountability doesn't lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities," said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University. "It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate. Unfortunately, we found that compliance means losing students."

The study shows that as schools came under the accountability system, which uses student test scores to rate schools and reward or discipline principals, massive numbers of students left the school system. The exit of low-achieving students created the appearance of rising test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap between white and minority students, thus increasing a school's ratings.

According to researchers, this study has serious implications for the nation's schools under the NCLB law. It finds that the higher the stakes and the longer such an accountability system governs schools, the more likely it is that school personnel see students not as children to educate but as potential liabilities or assets for their school's performance indicators, their own careers or their school's funding.

The study shows a strong relationship between an increase in number of dropouts and schools' rising accountability ratings, finding that:

  • loss of low-achieving students helps raise school ratings under the accountability system;
  • the accountability system allows principals to hold back students who are deemed at risk of reducing the school's scores; many students retained this way end up dropping out;
  • the test scores grouped by race single out the low-achieving students in these subgroups as potential liabilities to the school ratings, increasing incentives for school administrators to allow those students to quietly exit the system;
  • the accountability system's zero-tolerance rules for attendance and behavior, which put youth into the court system for minor offenses and absences, alienate students and increase the likelihood they will drop out.

The discrepancy between the official dropout rates, which are in the two to three percent range, and the actual rates is attributable to the state's method of counting. The method does not include students who drop out of school for reasons such as pregnancy or incarceration or declare intent to take the GED.

The research analyzes student-level data of 271,000 students in one of Texas' large urban districts over a seven-year period. It also includes analysis of the policy and its implementation, extensive observations in high schools in that district and interviews with students, teachers, administrators and students who left school without graduating.

"This study is cause for great concern when one considers the impact of accountability on students of color in an urban setting," says Dr. Julian Heilig, an assistant professor of educational policy and planning in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. "Contrary to what we had assumed about accountability, we found that it resulted in graduation rates that were low, while dropout rates escalated and the number of students who did not advance to the next grade rose.

"These findings are in direct contrast to public reports of improved school ratings and soaring test scores. As we move forward with educational policy on the state and national levels, we need to revisit the assumptions underlying accountability policy and consider the incentives that actually are created in schools by the current accountability structure."

The study was published in the peer-reviewed policy journal Educational Policy Analysis Archives and is the first research to track the impact of high-stakes accountability on students by employing individual student-level data over a multiyear period. The study can be viewed online.