Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis.


  • Linda McSpadden McNeil Rice University
  • Eileen Coppola Rice University
  • Judy Radigan Rice University
  • Julian Vasquez Heilig University of Texas-Austin




high-stakes testing, dropouts, accountability, Latino youth, African American youth.


In the state of Texas, whose standardized, high-stakes test-based accountability system became the model for the nation's most comprehensive federal education policy, more than 135,000 youth are lost from the state's high schools every year. Dropout rates are highest for African American and Latino youth, more than 60% for the students we followed. Findings from this study, which included analysis of the accountability policy in operation in high-poverty high schools in a major urban district, analysis of student-level data for more than 271,000 students in that district over a seven-year period under this policy, and extensive ethnographic analysis of life in schools under the policy, show that the state's high-stakes accountability system has a direct impact on the severity of the dropout problem. The study carries great significance for national education policy because its findings show that disaggregation of student scores by race does not lead to greater equity, but in fact puts our most vulnerable youth, the poor, the English language learners, and African American and Latino children, at risk of being pushed out of their schools so the school ratings can show "measurable improvement." High-stakes, test-based accountability leads not to equitable educational possibilities for youth, but to avoidable losses of these students from our schools.


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Author Biographies

Linda McSpadden McNeil, Rice University

Linda McSpadden McNeil is professor of education and director of the Rice University Center for Education. She is the author of Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (Routledge, 2000). She holds a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research encompasses educational quality and equity, and the education of urban youth in the context of standardization and globalization.

Eileen Coppola, Rice University

Eileen Coppola is a Research Scientist at the Rice University Center for Education and a lecturer in Education at Rice. She is the author of Powering Up: Learning to Teach Well with Technology (Teachers College Press, 2004). Her doctorate from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education is in Administration, Policy, and Social Planning in the Urban Superintendents Program. Her recent research is on the effects of policy on classrooms and student experience, and on the quality of students' engagement with schooling.

Judy Radigan, Rice University

Judy Radigan is a Research Scientist at the Rice University Center for Education and a lecturer in Education at Rice. She holds a PhD from the University of Houston in Educational Psychology and has extensive experience as a teacher and principal in urban schools. She is devoted to researching the lives of youth in schools and supports equitable educational opportunities.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, University of Texas-Austin

Julian Vasquez Heilig is an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin. He obtained his Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University. He holds masters degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan. His current research includes quantitatively and qualitatively examining how high-stakes testing and accountability-based reforms and incentive systems impact minority students.




How to Cite

McNeil, L. M. ., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Vasquez Heilig, J. (2008). Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16, 3. https://doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v16n3.2008