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Manhattan Institute

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Building on the Basics: The Impact of High-Stakes Testing on Student Proficiency in Low- Stakes Subjects

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Building on the Basics: The Impact of High-Stakes Testing on Student Proficiency in Low- Stakes Subjects

July 1, 2008

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.

The primary findings of the study are:

  • The F-grade sanction produced after one year a gain in student science proficiency of about a 0.08 standard deviation. These gains are similar to those in reading and appear smaller than the gains in math that were due to the F sanction.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that student science proficiency increased primarily because student learning in math and reading enabled that increase. That is, learning in math and reading appear to contribute to learning in science.

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