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Test-based accountability has beneficial long-term effects on the graduation rates and future earnings of disadvantaged Texas students attending schools at risk of failing, new study finds

But disadvantaged students at schools seeking recognition for high performance suffer education and income losses.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (October, 2015) – Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) hoping to achieve sweeping school improvements through test-based accountability. As Congress now works to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which will replace NCLB, a new article from Education Next offers policymakers the first look at the long-term impacts of test-based accountability on students’ future gains.

In “When Does Accountability Work? Texas system had mixed effects on graduation rates and future earnings,” researchers David J. Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks find that disadvantaged students who attended schools that fell just below the Texas minimum performance standard fared better by age 25 than low-scoring students in schools that barely escaped being identified as failing. Before George W. Bush signed NCLB into law as president, Texas implemented a test-based accountability system in 1993 under Bush as governor that was similar to the subsequent federal NCLB law. The researchers compared disadvantaged Texas students from successive cohorts within the same school between 1995 and 2000 in order to identify effects when a school encountered a risk point in mathematics under the accountability system.

The Texas system rated schools as Low-Performing, Acceptable, Recognized, or Exemplary. To receive an “Acceptable” rating in 1995, 25 percent of all 10th-graders were required to pass a high school exam. However, that percentage increased by 5 percent every year so that by 2000, at least 50 percent of 10th-graders had to pass the same exam. Because of these changing performance standards, a school’s level of risk could change from year to year. The same was true for schools hoping to receive a “Recognized” rating (from 70 percent in 1995 to 95 percent in 2000). The researchers compared cohorts of students at the same school in years when the school was at a critical performance level on the math test with years when they were not.

The researchers found that disadvantaged students (i. e., those students previously identified as low math performers) in grade cohorts attending a school at risk for receiving a “Low-Performing” rating were more successful later in life than students attending that school when the accountability system had not placed it at risk. These students were 1.9 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college, 1.27 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and earn about 1 percent more at age 25 than students in cohorts whose schools were under less accountability pressure.

On the other hand, the researchers found negative long-term impacts for low-scoring students in grade cohorts who attended a school facing the opportunity to achieve a “Recognized” rating as compared to those in schools not facing a recognition opportunity. These students were 1.8 percentage points less likely to attend a four-year college, 0.7 percentage points less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, and earn on average $748 less at age 25.

Deming et al. attributed the disparate impacts to schools’ different strategies in coping with their perceived risks. Schools in danger of receiving a “Low-Performing” rating were likely to mitigate their risk both through an increase in the number of math courses for students who previously failed the 8th-grade exam and other increased staffing and instructional time. But schools seeking a “Recognized” rating had a propensity to “game the system” by strategically classifying low-scoring students as eligible for special education, thus exempting their test scores from counting toward the school’s overall rating.

The authors recommend policymakers consider a system of minimum quality standards while avoiding recognition incentives that encourage schools to exclude at-risk students from participating in mainstream courses.

When Does Accountability Work? Texas system had mixed effects on graduation rates and future earnings” is available now on and will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of Education Next, on newsstands by November 21.

About the Authors:

David J. Deming is associate professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah Cohodes is assistant professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. Jennifer Jennings is assistant professor of sociology at New York University. Christopher Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

About Education Next:

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. For more information about Education Next, please visit

Last updated October 27, 2015