Working paper

Exploring Sustained Improvement in Low Performing Schools

Richard S. Brown
Harvard University
Marsha Ing
University of California, Riverside

The recent approval of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) changes the landscape for evaluating school success. In addition to requiring student testing in math and reading for all students in Grades 3–8, a major component of the new law mandates that all states determine, and schools and school districts demonstrate, “adequate yearly progress” toward state proficiency goals.

All students—regardless of race or socioeconomic status—must be held to the same academic expectations, and all students—regardless of race or socioeconomic status—must have their academic progress measured using a newly refined concept of adequate yearly progress (AYP).

The federal government’s new approach toward evaluating public education is based on progress, or improvement, in student achievement, rather than on student achievement alone. But just as there is no agreement over what constitutes proficient academic performance, there is also no universal standard for measuring improvement at the school level.

In California, increases in annual Academic Performance Index (API) scores are often touted as indications of student improvement and subsequently school success. But yearly fluctuations in API scores may actually be due more to factors other than student improvement.

Likewise, schools that improve dramatically one year tend to improve less in subsequent years, and many actually decline.

For these reasons, it is advisable to look at student progress over a longer time frame, taking into account all the known variables that impact it. In this study, we have defined sustained improvement as increases in student outcomes that persist or extend beyond a single year. In addition to looking at API scores, we also consider demographic and school-level variables that are known to relate strongly to student achievement. These include student poverty, English proficiency, school size, and teacher quality.

The following questions are explored in this report:

  • How should we conceptualize and measure “sustained improvement” in California public schools?

  • Does the way we conceptualize this concept impact the number of schools at each level (elementary, middle, and secondary) that exhibit sustained improvement?

  • How well do predictors of student achievement relate to sustained improvement measures?

This report discusses each of these issues, presents a summary of findings, and considers the policy implications of the research.

Suggested citationBrown, R. S., & Ing, M. (2003, May). Exploring sustained improvement in low performing schools [Working paper]. Policy Analysis for California Education.