Archives for standardized testing



U.S. Math Education Still in the Doldrums

Every three years, the OECD, in the PISA assessment, studies 15-year-olds around the world to measure performance in reading, mathematics, and science. The results of the 2012 PISA assessment, which had a particular focus on mathematics, just came out and the United States does not fare well: “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th.” I worry not so much about the rank, but about the low absolute level of proficiency to get this rank.

The U.S. students’ particular strengths and weaknesses are even more distressing:

Students in the United States have particular strengths in cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae. They have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.

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How Cost Impacts College Applications

A new NBER paper (abstract; PDF) by Amanda Pallais looks at how small fees impact the application behavior and outcomes of low-income students. Using data from the ACT, she found that an increase in the number of free score reports that students were permitted to send to colleges resulted in students sending their scores to a wider range of colleges, with low-income students attending more selective colleges. These outcomes were surprising because the non-free score reports were a mere $6. The abstract:

This paper estimates the sensitivity of students’ college application decisions to a small change in the cost of sending standardized test scores to colleges. Using confidential ACT micro data, I find that when the ACT increased from three to four the number of free score reports that ACT-takers could send, the fraction of test-takers sending four reports rose substantially while the fraction sending three fell by an offsetting amount. Students simultaneously sent their scores to a wider range of colleges. Using micro data from the American Freshman Survey, two identification strategies show that ACT-takers sent more college applications and low-income ACT-takers attended more selective colleges after the cost change. The first strategy compares ACT-takers before and after the cost change, controlling for time trends and covariates, and the second estimates difference-in-difference regressions using SAT-takers as a control group. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that by inducing low-income students to attend more selective colleges, the policy change significantly increased their expected earnings. Because the cost of sending an additional (non-free) ACT score was merely $6 throughout, this sizable behavioral change is surprising and suggests that students may use simple heuristics in making their application decisions. In such a setting, small policy perturbations can have large effects on welfare.



More Evidence on Charter Schools

Writing at Slate, Ray Fisman reviews the latest research on the efficacy of charter schools.  The study focuses on students at six Boston schools that had previously demonstrated an ability to improve students’ test scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  This time, however, the researchers wanted to evaluate whether the schools really improved student outcomes or just mastered the art of “teaching to the test.” Here’s the breakdown:

The study examines the college readiness of Boston public school students who applied to attend the six charter schools between 2002 and 2008, with projected graduation dates of 2006–2013. In just about every dimension that affects post-secondary education, students who got high lottery numbers (and hence were much more likely to enroll in a charter school) outperformed those assigned lower lottery numbers. Getting into a charter school doubled the likelihood of enrolling in Advanced Placement classes (the effects are much bigger for math and science than for English) and also doubled the chances that a student will score high enough on standardized tests to be eligible for state-financed college scholarships. While charter school students aren’t more likely to take the SAT, the ones who do perform better, mainly due to higher math scores.

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A Small Nudge For College Enrollment?

A new working paper by George Bulman, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and former Teach for America teacher, looks at whether having an in-school SAT or ACT testing center affects test-taking and college enrollment: Because the additional cost of taking the exam at a neighboring high school is very small, standard economic models suggest that there […] Read More »



SAT Strategy by Gender: Men Guess, Women Leave it Blank

To guess or not to guess? Most students wrestle with this question at least once during their multiple choice test-taking years. A new paper by Harvard economics grad student Katherine Baldiga examines whether men and women approach the issue differently. From the abstract:

In this paper, we present the results of an experiment that explores whether women skip more questions than men. The experimental test consists of practice questions from the World History and U.S. History SAT II subject tests; we vary the size of the penalty imposed for a wrong answer and the salience of the evaluative nature of the task. We find that when no penalty is assessed for a wrong answer, all test-takers answer every question. But, when there is a small penalty for wrong answers and the task is explicitly framed as an SAT, women answer significantly fewer questions than men.

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Evaluating Teachers: What About Doing it the Old-Fashioned Way?

As part of our ongoing obsession with improving public education, we bring you a new study from Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia Business School and Cecilia Speroni, a former doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College, that explores the power of objective and subjective teacher evaluations. While an emphasis on merit pay and test scores can lead to widespread cheating (as covered in this week’s Freakonomics Marketplace podcast), not to mention the occasional Matt Damon outburst, Rockoff and Speroni offer a potential glimmer of hope for the old-fashioned approach: the study finds that subjective teacher evaluations for New York City teachers had strong predictive power for future student performance. Here’s the abstract: Read More »



Bring Your Questions for Peg Tyre, Author of The Good School

Peg Tyre is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who specializes in writing about education policy. In her 2008 book, The Trouble with Boys, she delved into the growing academic achievement gap between boys and girls to examine why boys are falling so far behind in the classroom. In her new book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve, Tyre mines education research data to find out which programs and strategies give kids the highest probabilities of academic success. The result is a concise handbook for parents, one that applies a macro-economic view of education in an effort to create a more rational market around school choice.

As another school year kicks off, Tyre has agreed to answer your questions about The Good School, and anything else education-related. So fire away in the comments section. Before you do, take a look at the table of contents from The Good School printed below, and also read Tyre’s adapted excerpt from the book on the merits (or lack thereof) of teaching to the test. Read More »



What Should Be Done About Standardized Tests? A Freakonomics Quorum

What should be done about the quality and quantity of standardized testing in U.S. schools? We touched on the subject in Freakonomics, but only insofar as the introduction of high-stakes testing altered the incentives at play — including the incentives for some teachers, who were found to cheat in order to cover up the poor […] Read More »