Grading New York: Accountability and Student Proficiency in America's Largest School District

Issue/Topic: Accountability; Accountability--Reporting Results
Author(s): Winters, Marcus; Cowen, Joshua
Publication: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
Published On: 2012

A common concern about accountability policies is that schools might respond inappropriately to pressure to increase student standardized test scores in ways that do not also represent true gains in achievement.

To study the influence of New York City’s school grading policy on student math and English language arts (ELA) achievement.


  • A school's receipt of an F-grade was directly related to higher student achievement the following year on ELA exams.
  • The positive effect from attending a school that received an F-grade persists for the student 2 years later in both math and ELA.  With a few notable exceptions, the influence of the failing grade sanction was relatively similar for students of different race/ethnicities and of different prior achievement levels within the school.
  • This positive evidence aside, results also suggest that schools did not respond well to receiving punitive grades other than F.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

  • Assigning failing grades to low-achieving schools as an accountability tool can have a positive, substantive effect. 
  • The F-grade, which is universally understood to identify the worst of the worst in any evaluation context, was the only indicator strong enough to induce a meaningful academic response.
  • Further exploration of whether and to what extent accountability programs can have lasting impacts may be a fruitful research endeavor, along with continued attention to determining which sorts of schools may respond positively to accountability pressure and which may not respond as policymakers intend.

Research Design:
A regression discontinuity approach was used to produce causal estimates for the influence of New York City’s school grading policy on student math and English language arts (ELA) achievement.

988 public schools, grades 3-8, under the New York City Department of Education.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Student-level data provided by the New York City Department of Education includes student math and ELA test scores on the state’s mandated exams and observable characteristics for the universe of test-taking students in 3rd-8th grade from the 2005—06 through 2008-09 school years. The September 2007 letter grade was used as the key explanatory variable, and its impact on the spring 2008 test scores represents the initial impact while the spring 2009 scores were for the persistence analysis.


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