Putting schools on probation for sub-par test scores spurs transfer patterns linked to household income, report sociologists.
Their study of a school accountability program in the Chicago Public Schools reveals that families were responsive to new information about school quality and that those with more financial resources were the most likely to transfer to other schools in the district or to leave the district altogether.
However, the researchers find, rarely did transfers within the Chicago system lead to substantial upgrades in school quality. In fact, many students shuffled from probation schools to non-probation schools with only slightly higher testing results.
“‘Educational upgrading’ is a difficult undertaking for poor families leaving schools on probation because such schools are clustered together in low-income neighborhoods and finding better alternatives requires prohibitively long travel distances,” explains Peter Rich, a doctoral candidate at New York University and one of the study’s authors.
“Our research shows that without directly changing the supply of schooling options offered to families in segregated, poor neighborhoods, policies that expand school choice will have little impact on alleviating the educational inequality they intend to address.”
20% of schools put on probation
The researchers examined the impact of a program implemented by the Chicago Public Schools in 1996, six years before the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Similar to NCLB, the Chicago program used test score data to hold schools accountable for student outcomes.
In September of that year, one fifth of schools across the district were assigned “probation” for low rates of grade-level reading proficiency—publicly available marks that gave families new information about school quality.
In their study, the researchers examined elementary and middle school student records for every fall and spring semester of enrollment between the 1993-1994 and 1998-1999 academic years. By observing students’ enrollment over consecutive semesters, they were able to identify if and when students transferred schools or left the district.
Overall, 84 percent of all students attending probation schools were black, even though black students make up only 54 percent of the total student population in Chicago. Another 15 percent of students in probation schools were Latino, while almost none were Asian, Native American, or white.
The study identified that the probation accountability labels triggered a spike in student transfers out of these low-performing schools, especially in the summer following the first official district announcement of the policy.
However, there were notable differences in transfer rates and destinations between poor (as measured by free and reduced-price lunch status) and non-poor students. Non-poor students were more likely to transfer than were poor students, and even more likely to leave the district altogether. While the researchers could not track students who left the district, they were able to determine the destination schools of students making within-district transfers.
Strikingly, they found students circulated from one low-performing school to another, rarely ending up in schools with much higher test scores. School quality upgrades were infrequent both before and after the accountability policy was implemented.
“These findings make clear that information and choice are not enough to address unequal access to high-quality schooling, nor are they sufficient to equalize opportunity for children trapped in inferior schools,” Rich observes. “Without addressing the broader social and economic determinants that shape the quality of options available to families, the expansion of choice will do little to empower families in their educational decisions.”
The study, coauthored with Jennifer Jennings, an assistant professor in the sociology department, appears in the American Sociological Review.