More Evidence that Test-Based Accountability Narrows the Curriculum

A new academic study has found that test-based accountability measures in the United States have narrowed the curriculum in schools. A statistical analysis published in the latest issue of Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis concludes that there is strong evidence that class time devoted to mathematics and English has increased while the share going to science and social studies has decreased in response to school accountability measures.

The US No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) introduced during the 2002–03 school year introduced national school accountability measures based on standardised tests. It required annual student testing in mathematics and English and school-level reporting on whether schools were succeeding or failing to make “adequate yearly progress” toward proficiency goals.

Several teacher and school surveys have consistently found that the NCLB has led to more time being devoted to mathematics and English and to test preparation. For example, the Center on Education Policy conducted two national surveys and several case studies of selected school districts in which respondents reported that schools, particularly those in urban and high poverty districts, increased the time allocated to mathematics and English in response to the NCLB.

A survey of teachers, principals, and superintendents in three states (California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) by researchers at the RAND Corporation a narrowing of the curriculum and an emphasis on test preparation, particularly for “bubble kids” just below the proficiency cut-off scores for their state assessment system.

The new study has confirmed these results by a sophisticated statistical analysis. It found that the share of instructional time allocated to math and ELA increased following the introduction of NCLB, particularly in states that had not instituted school accountability prior to this time. There were corresponding and similar-sized drops in the share of time allocated to science and social studies.

The analysis showed that NCLB increased the share of time given to mathematics and English by 3.6 percentage points (roughly 5%). The increase was even greater in schools where more than half of students were approved for free lunch, with an increase of 4.2 percentage points.

The study states that the increases imply an additional 45 minutes per week of mathematics and English or 50 minutes per week in high-poverty schools. The increases were largely driven by more time devoted to English. The estimated effects of NCLB on the fraction of time devoted to math, though positive, are smaller and statistically insignificant.

The new study also confirms the findings of a number of earlier studies that have looked at the relationship between school accountability and the allocation of class time in US schools. These studies found evidence that accountability causes schools to re-allocate time toward tested subjects, toward specific content areas within subjects, and toward particular types of test preparation activities.

Trevor Cobbold

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