Less is More: The Effects of Suspension and Suspension Severity on Behavioral and Academic Outcomes

Sad teenager excluded in a classroom

The use of exclusionary discipline practices, such as out-of-school suspension and in-school suspension, is prevalent in the United States. Of the 50.6 million students enrolled in K–12 public schools in 2015–16, 2.7 million students received one or more out-of-school suspension. In addition, substantial disparities persisted for certain subgroups of students, such as Black students and students with disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2018).

More severe types and lengths of exclusionary discipline have no positive effect on students’ future involvement in behavioral incidents, suggesting that more severe discipline fails to reduce students’ undesirable behavior either through changing their internal thought processes or by simply serving as an external deterrent.

A large body of research has found that exclusionary discipline practices are associated with negative educational outcomes for individual students and their peers. Yet little is known about how the type and length of suspension are related to academic and nonacademic outcomes for disciplined students and their peers. In addition, to our knowledge, no prior study has compared later academic and nonacademic outcomes for students with the same disciplinary incidents but different disciplinary responses or for their peers.

AIR worked with the New York City Department of Education to investigate the effects of the type and length of exclusionary disciplinary responses on (a) middle and high school students’ educational outcomes, (b) their same-grade same-school peers’ educational outcomes, and (c) school climate. To accomplish this, we used linked disciplinary, demographic, and academic administrative data from the NYCDOE.

Study Design

AIR used machine learning extreme gradient boosting to create propensity score weights, which were then used to create optimally equivalent groups of students, allowing us to come closer than previous studies to controlling for omitted-variable bias. For each comparison of exclusionary discipline dosage, the groups of students who received the more and less severe discipline response were balanced on not only individual and school covariates, they were balanced on detailed data on the behavioral incident they were reported for. The only significant difference between the groups is that they received different types and lengths of exclusionary discipline as a response to their behavioral incidents.

Key Findings

  • More severe exclusionary discipline does not serve as a deterrent to students’ future reported misbehavior, and for younger students it may instead exacerbate it. In addition, more severe exclusionary discipline has a consistent negative effect on many other long-term educational outcomes for students.
  • Receiving a more severe exclusionary disciplinary response to an incident increases the number of days students miss due to absence during subsequent school years, increases the number of days they miss due to suspension in subsequent school years, decreases their likelihood of earning both English language arts and math credits throughout their high school career, and decreases their likelihood of graduating.
  • The severity of exclusionary disciplinary response has no effect on the reported behavior, academic outcomes, or attendance of peers in the same grade within the disciplined student’s school, nor does it have effects on students’ or teachers’ perceptions of school climate.