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Standards, accountability, assessment, and curriculum

Sarah Ruth Morris, Andy Parra-Martinez, Jonathan Wai, Robert Maranto.

This mixed-methods study synthesizes Standards-Based Grading (SBG) literature, analyzes 249 Arkansas administrators' survey responses using OLS regressions, and identifies themes through in-vivo coding of qualitative feedback. Results show more SBG support among liberal, elementary-level administrators in larger, economically diverse districts. Qualitative insights highlight structural barriers and mindsets against SBG, emphasizing its importance for mastery-focused assessment and grading alignment. These findings underscore the influence of principals' beliefs on SBG support and suggest researching the contextual and ideological factors influencing SBG's implementation.

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Joshua Bleiberg, Eric Brunner, Erica Harbatkin, Matthew A. Kraft, Matthew G. Springer.

Federal incentives and requirements under the Obama administration spurred states to adopt major reforms to their teacher evaluation systems. We examine the effects of these reforms on student achievement and attainment at a national scale by exploiting their staggered implementation across states. We find precisely estimated null effects, on average, that rule out impacts as small as 0.017 standard deviations for achievement and 1.2 percentage points for high school graduation and college enrollment. We highlight five factors that likely limited the efficacy of teacher evaluation at scale: political opposition, decentralization, capacity constraints, limited generalizability, and the absence of compensating wages.

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Blake Heller.

In 2016, the GED® introduced college readiness benchmarks designed to identify testers who are academically prepared for credit-bearing college coursework. The benchmarks are promoted as awarding college credits or exempting “college-ready” GED® graduates from remedial coursework. I show descriptive evidence that those identified as college-ready by these benchmarks enroll and persist in college at significantly higher rates than others who pass the GED® exam, but at lower rates than recent graduates with traditional high school diplomas. Regression discontinuity estimates show that crossing a college readiness threshold does not substantially influence testers' college enrollment or persistence during the two years following their first test attempt. Relatedly, I observe little exam retaking by those who fall narrowly short of the minimum college readiness score thresholds. This contrasts strongly with retaking behavior near the lower GED® passing threshold that determines eligibility for a high school equivalency credential. Those who narrowly fail a GED® subject test are over 100 times more likely to retest than those who fall just short of a college readiness benchmark in the same subject. GED® college readiness benchmarks do not currently appear to promote better college outcomes, but in the absence of more detailed test score information they offer a simple heuristic to predict short-run college enrollment and persistence among GED® graduates, particularly for those who identify educational gain as a primary reason for testing. The results highlight the promise and challenges associated with building pathways for non-traditional students to earn credit for prior learning.

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Heather McCambly, Quinn Mulroy, Andrew Stein.

A common point of contention across education policy debates is whether and how facially race-neutral metrics of quality produce or maintain racialized inequities. Medical education is a useful site for interrogating this relationship, as many scholars point to the 1910, Carnegie-funded Flexner Report—which proposed standardized quality metrics—as a main driver of the closure of five of the seven Black medical schools. Our research demonstrates how these proposed quality metrics, and their philanthropic and political advocates, instantiated a racialized organizational order that governed the distribution of resources, the development of state certification processes, and the regulation of medical schools. This analysis provides traction for uncovering how taken-for-granted standards of quality come to maintain racialized access to opportunity in education.

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Yue Huang, Hojung Lee, Arielle Lentz, Kenneth A. Shores.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) prepares students for life beyond high school by providing practical labor skills, workforce credentials, and early post-secondary credits. States are required to report the number of CTE concentrators to receive federal Perkins funding, but systems of identifying students as concentrators vary among states. We analyzed two distinct concentrator identification strategies, one based on local education agency administrator reporting and another universal screening system using transcript data. Analyses revealed moderate amounts of mismeasurement in concentration status and modest amounts of systematic mismeasurement penalizing students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, English language services, and special education services.

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David Menefee-Libey, Carolyn Herrington, Kyoung-Jun Choi, Julie Marsh, Katrina Bulkley.

COVID-19 upended schooling across the United States, but with what consequences for the state-level institutions that drive most education policy? This paper reports findings on two related research questions. First, what were the most important ways state government education policymakers changed schools and schooling from the moment they began to reckon with the seriousness of COVID-19 through the first full academic year of the pandemic? Second, how deep did those changes go – are there indications the pandemic triggered efforts to make lasting changes in states’ education policymaking institutions? Using multiple-methods research focused on Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oregon, we documented policies enacted during the period from March 2020 through June 2021 across states and across sectors (traditional and choice) in three COVID-19-related education policy domains: school closings and reopenings, budgeting and resource allocation, and assessment and accountability systems. We found that states quickly enacted radical changes to policies that had taken generations to develop. They mandated sweeping school closures in Spring 2020, and then a diverse array of school reopening policies in the 2020/2021 school year. States temporarily modified their attendance-based funding systems and allocated massive federal COVID-19 relief funds. Finally, states suspended annual student testing, modified the wide array of accountability policies and programs linked to the results of those tests, and adapted to new assessment methods. These crisis-driven policy changes deeply disrupted long-established patterns and practices in education. Despite this, we found that state education governance systems remained resilient, and that at least during the first 16 months of the pandemic, stakeholders showed little interest in using the crisis to trigger more lasting institutional change. We hope these findings enable state policymakers to better prepare for future crises.

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Beth Schueler, Liz Nigro, John Wang.

The improvement of low-performing school systems is one potential strategy for mitigating educational inequality. Some evidence suggests districtwide reform may be more effective than school-level change, but limited research examines district-level turnaround. There is also little scholarship examining the effects of turnaround reforms on outcomes beyond the first few years of implementation, on outcomes beyond test scores, or on the effectiveness of efforts to replicate district improvement successes beyond an initial reform context. We study these topics in Massachusetts, home to the Lawrence district representing a rare case of demonstrated improvements in the early years of state takeover and turnaround and where state leaders have since intervened in three other contexts as a result. We use statewide student-level administrative data (2006-07 to 2018-19) and event study methods to estimate medium-term reform impacts on test and non-test outcomes across four Massachusetts-based contexts: Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield, and Southbridge. We find substantial district improvement was possible although sustaining the rate of gains was more complicated. Replicating gains in new contexts was also possible but not guaranteed. 

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Quentin Brummet, Lindsay Liebert, Thurston Domina, Paul Yoo, Andrew Penner.

Although existing research suggests that students benefit on a range of outcomes when they enroll in early algebra classes, policy efforts that accelerate algebra enrollment for large numbers of students often have negative effects. Explanations for this apparent contradiction often emphasize the potential role of teacher and peer effects, which could create positive effects for individual students placed into early algebra that would not translate to larger-scale policies. We use detailed data from Oregon that contain information on the teachers and peers to whom students are exposed in order to investigate these explanations. Our regression discontinuity analyses replicate key findings from prior studies, indicating that placement in eighth-grade algebra boosts student achievement in math and English language arts. We then demonstrate that eighth-grade algebra placement positively affects the achievement level of students’ classmates, as well as the years of experience and value added of students’ math teachers. The effects on peer composition that we observe are large enough to plausibly explain the majority of the effects of eighth-grade algebra on student test scores.

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Erica Harbatkin, Betsy Wolf.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) began a new wave of school accountability under which states draw on multiple measures to assess school quality. States have options in terms of how to weight components in their school quality indices and how many years of data to use to determine school ratings. In this study, we simulate school ratings using eight years of administrative data in North Carolina to demonstrate how state decisions about school ratings and identification influence school ratings and the list of schools identified for improvement. We then evaluate these decisions against a framework that considers the validity, stability, and equity of the ratings, underscoring the inherent tradeoffs that come with each. We show that while a system that weights proficiency more heavily than growth produces more stable school ratings, identifying schools based on multiple years of performance data instead of one more than offsets the loss of stability in shifting to a growth measure. We conclude with recommendations for state accountability systems under ESSA and for federal policymaking moving forward.

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Kirsten Slungaard Mumma.

The recent spike in book challenges has put school libraries at the center of heated political debates. I investigate the relationship between local politics and school library collections using data on books with controversial content in 6,631 public school libraries. Libraries in conservative areas have fewer titles with LGBTQ+, race/racism, or abortion content and more Christian fiction and discontinued Dr. Seuss titles. This is true even though most libraries have at least some controversial content. I also find that state laws that restrict curricular content are negatively related to some kinds of controversial books. Finally, I present descriptive short-term evidence that book challenges in the 2021-22 school year have had “chilling effects” on the acquisition of new LGBTQ+ titles.

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