NEW YORK—Accountability policies linked to school performance may result in unintended consequences, such as inducing schools to engage in strategic classification of certain students to improve overall scores rather than make genuine improvements to the quality of education. This “gaming of the system” by schools in an influential model program is revealed in new analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In “Unintended Consequences of School Accountability Policies: Evidence from Florida and Implications for New York,” authors Rajashri Chakrabarti and Noah Schwartz examine how schools responded to the introduction of the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program, an accountability program that made students from consistently low-performing schools eligible for vouchers enabling them to transfer to better ones. As a result, poor-performing schools faced the threat of losing students, and the corresponding state funding, if their accountability scores failed to improve.
Using data from the Florida Department of Education, the authors find that schools faced with the voucher threat strategically classified low-performing students into categories that were excluded from the calculation of school accountability scores. This strategic sorting may have resulted in higher overall scores for schools, but did not necessarily lead to improved education for students, negating the intended goal of the accountability program.
These findings have important implications for the design of other accountability programs, including New York City’s Progress Reports program and New York’s implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which were both modeled on the Florida program. While these local programs have avoided the types of exemptions that incentivized gaming in Florida, they have the potential to induce schools to engage in other forms of strategic reclassification—such as placing high-performing students into high-needs groups to improve the school’s standing.
Rajashri Chakrabarti is an economist and Noah Schwartz is a former assistant economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.