Schools suspend poor students to raise test scores, study shows

June 12, 2006

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Eager to boost state-mandated test scores, some schools use disciplinary punishment to prevent their worst students from taking the test, a new University of Florida study finds.

Students with a record of lower math and reading scores on previous standardized tests were more likely to be suspended at test time and for longer periods than their higher performing classmates, said David Figlio, a UF economist whose study is published in the May issue of the Journal of Public Economics.

“Introduction of high-stakes testing to improve school accountability has apparently led these schools to disproportionately punish low-performing students during the testing period to try to ‘game the system,’” Figlio said.

With lengthy suspensions, students are more apt to miss the examination and its make-up dates, thus raising the school’s overall average, he said.

“Potentially low performing students may be receiving longer suspensions because although schools want to have as many high-performing students as possible in school to take the examination, they hope to have more low-performing students stay home,” Figlio said.

Schools are concerned about test scores because they play a critical role in how much money they receive and in some cases determine whether teachers get bonuses, he said.

“People choose where they want to send their children to school and where they want to live based on state accountability ratings, and principals get promoted or demoted as a result of them,” he said. “The more these scores can be manipulated, the less meaningful these ratings are.”

Using student testing to evaluate public schools has been the biggest educational policy change in the United States in the past few decades, Figlio said. It gained popularity in some states in the 1990s and later was broadened with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which provides rewards and sanctions to schools based on how well students perform.

Figlio’s study analyzed suspension rates of students involved in 41,803 incidents at 504 elementary, middle and high schools in Florida from 1996 through 2000, the first four years after the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, was introduced.

He compared the disciplinary actions taken against pairs of students suspended for the same kind of incident to determine whether the suspensions were influenced by test scores a year before. In nearly 60 percent the two students received different punishments.

Students with the lowest predicted scores in reading and mathematics on the FCAT were suspended for an average of 2.35 days, with 23 percent receiving sentences lasting one week or longer, while the better students averaged 1.91-day suspensions, with 18 percent receiving suspensions of one week or longer.

Since the introduction of the FCAT, however, Florida has changed its accountability rules so schools will have no incentive to keep lower-performing students out of the test. Since 2002, Florida’s new accountability system has focused on the fraction of students who make gains from one year to the next, rather than on overall proficiency levels, Figlio said.

While such disparities are unlikely to be a problem anymore in Florida, Figlio said, this is not the case for the rest of the nation.

“Florida’s current system is an aberration as opposed to the rule,” Figlio said. “The accountability systems in most states, and certainly that of the No Child Left Behind Act at the federal level, are very much like Florida’s initial system in this study.”

The most popular way schools manipulate the system is “teaching to the test,” Figlio said. Other potentially questionable approaches that have been documented include increasing the calorie content of school lunches during test week, which helps boost academic performance by improving short-term cognitive ability, and moving poorer students into special education classes, which often are not required to take the test, he said.

Discipline is another way that school administrators maneuver to exclude students who might hurt a school’s reputation, with the irony of less productive results, Figlio said. “If students are repeatedly and consistently disciplined more harshly, they may be more at risk for repeating grades or dropping out of school altogether,” he said.