In education, we hear the terms “failing school” and “low-performing school” quite frequently. Usually, they are used in soundbyte-style catchphrases such as, “We can’t keep students trapped in ‘failing schools.’” Sometimes, however, they are used to refer to a specific group of schools in a given state or district that are identified as “failing” or “low-performing” as part of a state or federal law or program (e.g., waivers, SIG). There is, of course, interstate variation in these policies, but one common definition is that schools are “failing/low-performing” if their proficiency rates are in the bottom five percent statewide.
Putting aside the (important) issues with judging schools based solely on standardized testing results, low proficiency rates (or low average scores) tell you virtually nothing about whether or not a school is “failing.” As we’ve discussed here many times, students enter their schools performing at different levels, and schools cannot control the students they serve, only how much progress those students make while they’re in attendance (see here for more).
From this perspective, then, there may be many schools that are labeled “failing” or “low performing” but are actually of above average effectiveness in raising test scores. And, making things worse, virtually all of these will be schools that serve the most disadvantaged students. If that’s true, it’s difficult to think of anything more ill-advised than closing these schools, or even labeling them as “low performing.” Let’s take a quick, illustrative look at this possibility using the “bottom five percent” criterion, and data from Colorado in 2013-14 (note that this simple analysis is similar to what I did in this post, but this one is a little more specific; also see Glazerman and Potamites 2011; Ladd and Lauen 2010; and especially Chingos and West 2015).