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Expanding Measures of School Performance
We all know that reading and math standardized test scores do not truly represent how good a school is. But thanks to No Child Left Behind (NCLB – the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA), that is just about all we consider when judging a school’s performance. Under current accountability systems, whether a school promotes civic-mindedness, good physical health or social or behavioral outcomes like self-regulating behavior or an ability to work in teams – or any of the other outcomes that society expects of its public schools – doesn’t actually count towards anything.
So of course, schools focus their efforts on the things that matter. Research confirms that since implementation of No Child Left Behind, curriculum in many places has narrowed. Schools are spending more time teaching basic reading and math at the expense of the arts, social studies, physical education and science.
We at the Learning First Alliance have long called for a broader approach to assessment and school accountability. Individually, many of our member organizations do as well. So we were very privileged to have the opportunity to co-host, with the Sandler Foundation, an event to release a new report by RAND Education that examined expanded measures of school performance.
In this report, RAND examined what measures of school performance that states currently use in accountability systems, trends outside the accountability context in the types of measures used to improve schools, what guidance the research can give in adopting new measures, and ways the federal government might encourage the development and expansion of alternative measures of school performance.
It turns out that 20 states publish their own ratings of schools, in addition to the federal accountability ratings. The most common categories in those rating systems are:
• Additional tested subjects (often history or social studies)
• Measures of growth in student performance over time
• Assigning weight to test scores along the spectrum of performance, rather than focusing only on proficiency or above
• College-readiness measures (such as ACT scores or enrollment in Advanced Placement courses)
The report also identified three categories of measures emerging in state reporting:
• A safe and supportive school environment (including students’ perceptions of school climate)
• Identifying students at risk of failing
• Improving student outcomes through more frequent assessments or advanced coursework
In addition, RAND pointed out that there is almost no published research on the quality of these measures, their value in promoting improved decision-making, or their impact on either school practice or student outcomes.
One of the things that I appreciated most about this report was its caution making recommendations for policy. While it recommended that ESEA reauthorization “incorporate a broader range of measures as a basis for accountability decisions than is currently mandated under NCLB,” it also pointed out that there is “insufficient evidence to make specific choices about which measures should be used.”
Therefore, RAND suggests that federal policy not create an immediate new federal mandate on specific measures, but instead allow states the choice within a set of predefined categories (for example, promoting a positive school culture and promoting positive behavioral, emotional and physical health outcomes). They also suggest that in light of state capacity issues (which are likely only going to get worse as budgets get smaller), the federal government incorporate the development and evaluation of new measures into existing competitive federal grant programs.
Knowing what we now know (thanks to NCLB) about the impact of accountability on school practice, I think it is quite clear that this caution is needed. Policymakers should push us forward in accountability without tying states hands or creating disincentives for them to hold their schools to high standards. Hopefully, they do so.