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Wednesday, 9th July 2008

Building on the Basics: The Impact of High Stakes Testing on Low Stakes Subjects

Building on the Basics: The Impact of High Stakes Testing on Low Stakes Subjects
Source: Manhattan Institute

School systems across the nation have adopted policies that reward or sanction particular schools on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized math and reading tests. One of the most frequently raised concerns regarding such “high-stakes testing” policies is that they oblige schools to focus on subjects for which they are held accountable but to neglect the rest. Many have worried that the limited focus of these policies could have an unintended negative effect on student proficiency in other subjects, such as science, that are important to the development of human capital and thus to future economic growth.

This paper uses a regression discontinuity design utilizing student-level data to evaluate the impact of sanctions under Florida’s high-stakes testing policy on student proficiency in science. Under that state’s A+ program, every public school receives a letter grade from A to F that is based primarily upon its students’ performance on the state’s standardized math and reading exams. Students in Florida were also administered a standardized exam in science, but this test was low-stakes because its results held no consequences under the A+ program or any other formal accountability policy.

Previous research has found that the rewards and sanctions of receiving an F grade in the prior year led to improved gains in student proficiency in the high-stakes subjects of math and reading. This current paper is the first to evaluate the impact of the incentives under this high-stakes testing system on student proficiency in science. This paper adds to a sparse previous literature quantitatively evaluating whether high-stakes testing policies have “crowded out” learning in a low-stakes subject.

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