New NEPC Review of Ohio Study Suggests Possible Benefits of School Closure on Test Scores

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Despite encouraging results, concerns limit study’s application

A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute investigated school closures in Ohio for urban district and charter schools. The report found a general increase in the test scores of displaced students. An academic review of the report finds that, despite the encouraging results, it leaves un-addressed core questions about closure policy.

The report, School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools, was authored by Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu. It was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Professor Ben Kirshner of University of Colorado Boulder and Matthew Gaertner a senior research scientist at Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network. Think Twice is a project of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the CU Boulder School of Education.

The Fordham report found that students displaced from closed district schools showed greater gains in math and reading relative to students from non-closed schools, after controlling for student characteristics; students displaced from closed charter schools showed gains in math but not reading. Achievement gains associated with closure were greater for those displaced students who transferred to schools with higher levels of test performance (“higher-performing schools”). The overall achievement growth of students in the receiving schools, however, decreased in the year that they accommodated displaced students.

Although the finding that displaced students showed improvement in test scores is encouraging, Kirshner and Gaertner find several factors that limit the policy implications of the study. The report itself cautions that the potential for test score gains is dependent on the availability of higher-performing schools for displaced students, a condition that was only partly met in the Ohio case and is not assured in other major urban districts. Forty percent of students in closed schools transferred to schools that were not higher performing; the study did not separately report the academic performance of this sub-population of students. School closure, the reviewers state, also raises moral and political questions about who gets to make such consequential decisions, which are not answered by empirical data alone.

The reviewers conclude that the report offers some guidance for policy, though they offer four cautions. First, the study suggests benefits only if higher-quality receiving schools are available. Second, nearby schooling options must be accompanied by a guarantee of reliable transportation options. Third, understanding whether the closure resulted in students attending a truly better school requires looking at more than just test scores.

Finally, the reviewers conclude that the nature of the closed and receiving schools in the Fordham study suggests that closure may have resulted in students leaving schools with relatively greater concentrated poverty and racial isolation and then attending more economically and racially integrated schools. This alternative explanation, which would suggest policy implications for reducing segregation and poverty, was not explored in the study. If integration is the goal, Kirshner and Gaertner write, then surely there are other strategies than the blunt instrument of school closure.

The reviewers stress that “until people’s fundamental moral right to be part of decisions that affect their children’s lives are taken seriously, discussions about changes in test score performance are important but insufficient.”

Find Kirshner and Gaertner’s review on the NEPC website at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-school-closures

Find School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools by Deven Carlson and Stéphane Lavertu on the web at:
http://edexcellence.net/publications/school-closures-and-student-achievement-an-analysis-of-ohio%E2%80%99s-urban-district-and

The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org) of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on the NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

This review is also found on the GLC website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/

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William Mathis

Ben Kirshner
Univ. of Colorado- School of Education
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