NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Cheating Accountability Tests

August 4, 2003

Public schools may be cheating on their accountability tests, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The report notes that schools are under tremendous pressure to improve test scores or face the consequences, which include mandatory public school choice, the possibility of school restructuring and the loss of funds. Consequently, school administrators are under pressure to improve test scores.

Analyzing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in 1996, a standardized test in six large counties in Florida, the authors found that schools "game the system" by reshaping the test pool:

  • Under the FCAT testing regime, students classified as "special education" are exempt from state tests and thus do not hurt aggregate test scores.
  • Following the introduction of testing standards, schools reclassified low income and previously low performing students as special education at significantly higher rates.
  • The likelihood that a student would be classified as special education by 5.6 percentage points -- an increase of over 50 percent.
  • Consequently, schools improve their scores without improving their teaching.
  • It reduces the accuracy in the grades or classifications given to schools based on the accountability exams, and thereby reduces the potential effectiveness of a public policy aimed at improving the education system.
  • The trend also has an impact on total school costs, since special education on average costs 1.9 times as much per student as regular education.

Source: David R. Francis, "How School Administrators Cheat the Accountability Rules," NBER Digest, National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2003; based upon David Figlio and Lawrence Getzler, "Accountability, Ability and Disability: Gaming the System," National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper No. 9307, November 2002.

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