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Left Behind By Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability


  • Derek Neal
  • Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach


Many test-based accountability systems, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), place great weight on the numbers of students who score at or above specified proficiency levels in various subjects. Accountability systems based on these metrics often provide incentives for teachers and principals to target children near current proficiency levels for extra attention, but these same systems provide weak incentives to devote extra attention to students who are clearly proficient already or who have little chance of becoming proficient in the near term. We show based on fifth grade test scores from the Chicago Public Schools that both the introduction of NCLB in 2002 and the introduction of similar district level reforms in 1996 generated noteworthy increases in reading and math scores among students in the middle of the achievement distribution. Nonetheless, the least academically advantaged students in Chicago did not score higher in math or reading following the introduction of accountability, and we find only mixed evidence of score gains among the most advantaged students. A large existing literature argues that accountability systems built around standardized tests greatly affect the amount of time that teachers devote to different topics. Our results for fifth graders in Chicago, as well as related results for sixth graders after the 1996 reform, suggest that the choice of the proficiency standard in such accountability systems determines the amount of time that teachers devote to students of different ability levels.

Suggested Citation

  • Derek Neal & Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, 2007. "Left Behind By Design: Proficiency Counts and Test-Based Accountability," NBER Working Papers 13293, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:13293
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    4. Jacob, Brian A., 2005. "Accountability, incentives and behavior: the impact of high-stakes testing in the Chicago Public Schools," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(5-6), pages 761-796, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Marcelin Joanis, 2013. "Sharing the Blame? Local Electoral Accountability and Centralized School Finance in California," Economics and Politics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 25(3), pages 335-359, November.
    2. Burgess, Simon & Wilson, Deborah & Worth, Jack, 2013. "A natural experiment in school accountability: The impact of school performance information on pupil progress," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 106(C), pages 57-67.
    3. Robertson, Erin, 2011. "The effects of quarter of birth on academic outcomes at the elementary school level," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 30(2), pages 300-311, April.
    4. Raymundo M. Campos Vázquez & Freddy D. Urbina Romero, 2011. "Desempeño educativo en México: la prueba Enlace," Estudios Económicos, El Colegio de México, Centro de Estudios Económicos, vol. 26(2), pages 249-292.
    5. Carolyn J. Heinrich & Gerald Marschke, 2010. "Incentives and their dynamics in public sector performance management systems," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 29(1), pages 183-208.
    6. Victor Lavy, 2009. "Performance Pay and Teachers' Effort, Productivity, and Grading Ethics," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(5), pages 1979-2011, December.
    7. Bokhari, Farasat A.S. & Schneider, Helen, 2011. "School accountability laws and the consumption of psychostimulants," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(2), pages 355-372, March.
    8. Oster, Emily, 2009. "Does increased access increase equality? Gender and child health investments in India," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 89(1), pages 62-76, May.
    9. Mizala, Alejandra & Urquiola, Miguel, 2013. "School markets: The impact of information approximating schools' effectiveness," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 103(C), pages 313-335.
    10. Alejandra Mizala & Miguel Urquiola, 2007. "Parental choice and school markets: The impact of information approximating school effectiveness," Documentos de Trabajo 239, Centro de Economía Aplicada, Universidad de Chile.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D78 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Positive Analysis of Policy Formulation and Implementation
    • I2 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education
    • J41 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Labor Contracts

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