How Should States Measure School Success?

Most of today’s K–12 accountability systems are, themselves, persistently underperforming. One of the big problems is that they lean so heavily on student scores from reading and math tests. Even if the system uses growth measures in addition to proficiency, those growth scores are also typically based on reading and math tests.

Though basic literacy and numeracy are invaluable, schools provide boys and girls with so much more. When those other things—citizenship, the arts, non-cognitive skills, and so on—aren’t part of the system, all kinds of unfortunate stuff can happen. Curriculum can narrow, teachers feel constrained, the goals of schooling feel less fulsome, and kids’ opportunities can be limited.

There’s also the problem known as Campbell’s Law, which says that when a measure becomes the target, it can no longer be used as the measure. The idea is that people and organizations feel compelled to change behavior, often in regrettable ways, to hit targets. So by focusing so specifically on reading and math tests, our accountability systems can actually diminish the value of reading and math tests.

NCLB’s strict rules on AYP, school designations, and interventions contributed to this problem. ESSA was designed in no small part as a response. States now have more flexibility than at any time since 2001 to develop accountability systems. But the question remains: If we’re not going to focus on just a handful of standardized assessments, what other measures should be part of accountability systems?

How do we make explicit what we want schools to accomplish, track and publicize outcomes, and wisely respond to the information gleaned?

One of the best parts of serving as a judge on Fordham’s #ESSADesign contest was seeing that there are lots of very promising answers to this question. If states shrewdly take advantage of ESSA’s flexibility, there’s a real chance that they can create accountability systems that more fully and fairly assess schools. This will be great for kids, families, educators, and policy makers. And it would largely validate the theory of action behind this new federal law.

My Bellwether colleague Chad Aldeman recommends that states use a school inspection process, utilizing “professionals trained in rating, evaluating, and providing feedback to schools.” The suggestion here is that technical experts can help define what success looks like, assess school performance, and contribute to improvement. One of the most intriguing ideas was a variation on this theme, compliments of Sherman Dorn. He recommends “citizen judgment” instead of Chad’s expert judgment approach. He’d have states empower grand jury-like inspection teams to make independent assessments of schools. Dorn argues persuasively that this would cut against today’s “algorithmic accountability.” I think it could do even more: give communities another avenue to weigh in on what they believe constitutes a great school.

There were a few other fresh approaches to having stakeholders inform accountability systems. The Prichard Committee “Student Voice Team” wants to see more reliance on student surveys. Categories of information collected from pupils, the ultimate consumers of schooling, would include “teacher and student engagement, constructive student voice, communication among students, communication between students and teachers/administrators, cohesiveness of the student body, effective use of resources, encouragement of creativity, and student support.” Similarly, Teach Plus recommended using surveys of students, staff, and families—in my view, a terrific way to triangulate on school performance.

One of my favorite ideas came from Dale Chu and Eric Lerum, who contemplate school-level performance agreements that would allow some amount of school-level differentiation. School leaders and classroom teachers would have greater say over how they’d be assessed, as well as increased autonomy. In turn, the state and other stakeholders would be able to carefully track how well the school met its goals. Jennifer Vranek and her colleagues at Education First take a similar approach, seeking to enable local differentiation. They’d have accountability systems composed of statewide measures (“base points”) and locally determined indicators.

Polikoff, Wrabel, and Duque recommend a set of measures including absenteeism, “student engagement and happiness,” discipline, and—very interestingly—student opportunity to “receive a rich, full curriculum.” This last component would put greater pressure on systems of schools to provide a well-rounded education to all kids. I like the direction here. But I’m curious, in this context, what the difference would be between standards and curriculum, and whether the state government is best positioned to weigh in on curriculum.

Rich Wenning probably had the most avant-garde proposal. Conceding that the kinds of measures we need are still in development, Wenning would initially attach low or no stakes to a category of student success and school quality indicators. But he’d have states aim to eventually create “individual student digital portfolios” to track each student’s progress toward a range of goals.

For too long, states had no systems for accountability, and the result was too little transparency about student results, system improvement, and the return on our investment of tax dollars. Over the last decade-plus, accountability systems over-corrected, often distorting school practice and the public’s view of school performance.

I’ve been cautiously optimistic about ESSA’s potential to remedy this situation. The #ESSADesign competition happily reduced my emphasis on “cautiously.”

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper.

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