Panel Paper: The Effect of Florida’s Test-Based Promotion Policy on Student Performance Prior to the Retention Decision

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Comiskey (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Marcus Winters, Boston University

Sixteen states and a variety of urban school districts require students to score above a minimum threshold on standardized tests (always reading, and sometimes additionally math) in order to be default promoted to the next grade.

In addition to their effects on students retained by them, test-based promotion can also be seen as an accountability policy that provides incentives to both students and schools to make academic improvements in order to avoid the (perceived) need for retention. The present study adds to the limited evidence on the impact of test-based promotion policies in the gateway grade by evaluating the impact of Florida’s policy on student performance in the third grade. An analysis of the impact of Florida’s policy is particularly important because it has served as a model for several policies adopted recently in states across the nation.

I utilize a difference-in-difference approach in which I measure whether there was an increase in third grade test scores during the year of the policy’s first implementation relative to other grades within the school. I first apply the analysis using student-level data from two large school districts – Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale and surrounding area) and Hillsborough County (Tampa and surrounding area) – which at the time the policy was introduced additionally required students to take standardized reading and math tests in the second grade. To test for the generalizability of my findings, I then apply the analysis to school-by-grade level test scores in reading and math across the state.

I measure the effect of the policy on student performance on math and reading exams that were not used as part of the promotion decision or for any other high-stakes accountability purpose. Thus, the results are not likely to have been influenced by systematic test manipulation, teaching-to-the-test, or increases in student effort on the instrument. In addition, since Florida’s policy required students to score above a threshold only in reading, the scores on the math test provide an analysis of the impact on a low-stakes subject.

I present evidence that the introduction of Florida’s test-based promotion policy led to significant and substantial improvements in student performance in the third grade. The effect differs by prior student performance. In Broward County, I find evidence that the policy led to a significant decline in math achievement among students who entered the third grade with very low reading scores. I find some evidence for such a reallocation from math to reading in Hillsborough. In both districts I detect evidence that the policy had a positive effect on the reading achievement of low-performing students, but the policy had either no effect or a negative effect on the reading achievement of students who entered the third grade with very high reading proficiency. Analysis of the aggregated statewide dataset suggests a likely similar positive effect from the policy overall across the state.