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Standards, accountability, assessment, and curriculum

Jonathan E. Collins.

The George Floyd Protests of the Summer of 2020 initiated public conversations around the need for antiracist teaching. Yet, over time the discussion evolved into policy debates around the use of Critical Race Theory in civics courses. The rapid transition masked the fact that we know little about Americans' policy preferences. Do Americans support antiracist teaching? What factors best explain support/opposition? How does critical race theory factor in? Using a series of original survey experiments, this study shows that Americans maintain strong support for antiracist teaching, but that support is drastically weakened when curriculum features the term "critical race theory."

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Ann Mantil, John Papay, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani, Richard J. Murnane.

Preparing K-12 students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is an ongoing challenge confronting state policymakers. We examine the implementation of a science graduation testing requirement for high-school students in Massachusetts, beginning with the graduating class of 2010. We find that the design of the new requirement was quite complicated, reflecting the state’s previous experiences with test-based accountability, a broad consensus on policy goals among key stakeholders, and the desire to afford flexibility to local schools and districts. The consequences for both students and schools, while largely consistent with the goals of increasing students’ skills and interest in STEM fields, were in many cases unexpected. We find large differences by demographic subgroup in the probabilities of passing the first science exam and of succeeding on retest, even when conditioning on previous test-score performance. Our results also show impacts of science exit-exam performance for students scoring near the passing threshold, particularly on the high-school graduation rates of females and on college outcomes for higher-income students. These findings demonstrate the importance of equity considerations in designing and evaluating ambitious new policy initiatives.

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Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons.

Measures of student disadvantage—or risk—are critical components of equity-focused education policies. However, the risk measures used in contemporary policies have significant limitations, and despite continued advances in data infrastructure and analytic capacity, there has been little innovation in these measures for decades. We develop a new measure of student risk for use in education policies, which we call Predicted Academic Performance (PAP). PAP is a flexible, data-rich indicator that identifies students at risk of poor academic outcomes. It blends concepts from emerging “early warning” systems with principles of incentive design to balance the competing priorities of accurate risk measurement and suitability for policy use. PAP is more effective than common alternatives at identifying students who are at risk of poor academic outcomes and can be used to target resources toward these students—and students who belong to several other associated risk categories—more efficiently.

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Kate Antonovics, Sandra E. Black, Julie Berry Cullen, Akiva Yonah Meiselman.

Schools often track students to classes based on ability. Proponents of tracking argue it is a low-cost tool to improve learning since instruction is more effective when students are more homogeneous, while opponents argue it exacerbates initial differences in opportunities without strong evidence of efficacy. In fact, little is known about the pervasiveness or determinants of ability tracking in the US. To fill this gap, we use detailed administrative data from Texas to estimate the extent of tracking within schools for grades 4 through 8 over the years 2011-2019. We find substantial tracking; tracking within schools overwhelms any sorting by ability that takes place across schools. The most important determinant of tracking is heterogeneity in student ability, and schools operationalize tracking through the classification of students into categories such as gifted and disabled and curricular differentiation. When we examine how tracking changes in response to educational policies, we see that schools decrease tracking in response to accountability pressures. Finally, when we explore how exposure to tracking correlates with student mobility in the achievement distribution, we find positive effects on high-achieving students with no negative effects on low-achieving students, suggesting that tracking may increase inequality by raising the ceiling.

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Emily Morton, Paul Thompson, Megan Kuhfeld.

Four-day school weeks are becoming increasingly common in the United States, but their effect on students’ achievement is not well-understood. The small body of existing research suggests the four-day schedule has relatively small, negative average effects (~-0.02 to -0.09 SD) on annual, standardized state test scores in math and reading, but these studies include only a single state or are limited by using district-level data. We conduct the first multi-state, student-level analysis that estimates the effect of four-day school weeks on student achievement and a more proximal measure of within-year growth using NWEA MAP Growth assessment data. We conduct difference-in-differences analyses to estimate the effect of attending a four-day week school relative to attending a five-day week school. We estimate significant negative effects of the schedule on spring reading achievement (-0.07 SD) and fall-to-spring achievement gains in math and reading (-0.06 SD in both). The negative effects of the schedule are disproportionately larger in non-rural schools than rural schools and for female students, and they may grow over time. Policymakers and practitioners will need to weigh the policy’s demonstrated negative average effects on achievement in their decisions regarding how and if to implement a four-day week.

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John Papay, Ann Mantil, Richard J. Murnane.

Many states use high-school exit examinations to assess students’ career and college readiness in core subjects. We find meaningful consequences of barely passing the mathematics examination in Massachusetts, as opposed to just failing it. However, these impacts operate at different educational attainment margins for low-income and higher-income students. As in previous work, we find that barely passing increases the probability of graduating from high school for low-income (particularly urban low-income) students, but not for higher-income students. However, this pattern is reversed for 4-year college graduation. For higher-income students only, just passing the examination increases the probability of completing a 4-year college degree by 2.1 percentage points, a sizable effect given that only 13% of these students near the cutoff graduate.

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Walter Herring.

Because high-stakes testing for school accountability does not begin until third grade, accountability ratings for elementary schools do not directly measure students’ academic progress in grades K through 2. While it is possible that children’s test scores in grades 3 and above are highly correlated with children’s outcomes in the untested grades, research provides reasons to believe that this might not be the case in all schools. This study explores whether measures of school quality based on test scores in grades 3 through 5 serve as a strong proxy for children’s academic outcomes in grades K through 2. The results show that directly accounting for children’s test scores in the early grades could lead to meaningful changes in schools’ test-based performance ratings. The findings have important implications for accountability policy.

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Morgan S. Polikoff, Laura M. Desimone, Andrew C. Porter, Michael S. Garet, Amy Stornaiuolo, Katie Pak, Toni M. Smith, Mengli Song, Nelson Flores, Lynn S. Fuchs, Douglas Fuchs, T. Philip Nichols.

Standards have been at the heart of state and federal efforts to improve education for several decades. Most recently, standards-based reforms have evolved with a focus on more ambitious "college- and career-ready" (CCR) standards. This paper synthesizes the results of a seven-year national research center focused on the implementation and effects of CCR standards. The paper draws on evidence from a quasi-experimental longitudinal study using NAEP data, a cluster-randomized trial of an alignment feedback intervention, and detailed implementation data from state-representative surveys and case studies of five districts. Situating our work in a "policy attributes theory," we find important gaps in the theory of change underlying current standards-based reform efforts. We conclude that the CCR standards movement is not succeeding in achieving its desired outcomes. We make specific suggestions for improving instructional policy, including a) providing more specific instructional guidance, b) reconceptualizing professional learning, c) building buy-in through the involvement of trusted leaders, d) providing better supports for differentiation, and e) devoting attention and guidance to the intersection of content and pedagogy, and f) addressing persistent deficit thinking among educators. 

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Monnica Chan, Zachary Mabel, Preeya Pandya Mbekeani.

Performance-based funding models for higher education, which tie state support for institutions to performance on student outcomes, have proliferated in recent decades. Some states have designed these policies to also address educational attainment gaps by including bonus payments for traditionally low-performing groups. Using a Synthetic Control Method research design, we examine the impact of these funding regimes on race-based completion gaps in Tennessee and Ohio. We find no evidence that performance-based funding narrowed race-based completion gaps. In fact, contrary to their intended purpose, we find that performance-based funding widened existing gaps in certificate completion in Tennessee. Across both states, the estimated impacts on associate degree outcomes are also directionally consistent with performance-based funding exacerbating racial inequities in associate degree attainment.

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Dan Goldhaber, Zeyu Jin, Richard Startz.

We present new estimates of the importance of teachers in early grades for later grade outcomes, but unlike the existing literature that examines teacher “fade-out,” we directly compare the contribution of early-grade teachers to later year outcomes against the contributions of later year teachers to the same later year outcomes. Where the prior literature finds that much of the contribution of early teachers fades away, we find that the contributions of early-year teachers remain important in later grades. The difference in contributions to eighth-grade outcomes between an effective and ineffective fourth-grade teacher is about half the difference among eighth-grade teachers. The effect on eighth-grade outcomes of replacing a fourth-grade teacher who is below the 5th percentile with a median teacher is about half the underrepresented minority (URM)/non-URM achievement gap. Our results reinforce earlier conclusions in the literature that teachers in all grades are important for student achievement.

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