Using your mind’s eye, visualize a good school. What does a good school look like?
Maybe you see a place where children are excited and classrooms buzz with activity. Maybe you see a place where children are enjoying a nourishing meal together or running around on a well-maintained playground. Maybe you see children from diverse backgrounds learning together.
Our current education accountability system purports to measure school quality, yet it fails to reflect many of the characteristics of quality schools that most of us identify.
For too long, the focus of accountability has been on creating rankings and driving competition between schools. In its simplest form, this competition is about who can produce the highest student standardized test scores. But those scores are linked to factors like poverty, which are beyond the direct control of schools. As a result, present accountability systems fail to offer meaningful information about the important work our schools do.
If our true aim is to inform Americans about the quality of their schools, then it’s time to shift our focus to a more nuanced approach, one that uses multiple indicators — not just test scores — to portray a far more comprehensive picture of school quality.
So, what things should we measure? We can start with the characteristics of quality schools that our communities want, characteristics like ensuring students’ physical and emotional safety, effective teaching practices, a positive school culture, demographic diversity and more.
No single indicator, like standardized test scores, can fully capture the complexity of school quality. Standardized tests certainly can’t capture characteristics like school culture. Fortunately, other data sources are available, from school site visits, student and teacher perception surveys and other tools that many school districts already utilize (think: graduation rates and statistics on student discipline).
Unfortunately, because we are so accustomed to standardized test scores, alternative indicators are often unfairly viewed as “soft,” less valid or difficult to scale. And it’s true that expanding the number of tools we use to measure school quality will take some adjustment. But we can’t allow comfort and convenience to drive our approach to accountability.
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One problem with our present approach is that it tends to combine different constructs into a single score (or letter grade), which inaccurately reflects a school’s actual performance. Labeling a school with a “B” or a “5” doesn’t actually tell us much about what the school is doing well, nor does it identify areas for improvement.
Consequently, we must balance our desire for simplicity with our goal of sharing information with schools and the public, and resist the lure of combining several data points into one overall school “score.”
Equally important is the need to distinguish between measures of school quality and measures of broader societal inequality. Test scores are often a stronger reflection of student socioeconomic status than school quality. As a result, these scores often stigmatize schools that serve marginalized students.
No single indicator, like standardized test scores, can fully capture the complexity of school quality.
To address this, we should acknowledge the societal factors, like racism, poverty and funding differences, that impact each school’s performance. And we must differentiate between the direct work of schools — such as fostering strong student-teacher relationships and course offerings — and educational outcomes, such as dropout rates, college-going rates and standardized test scores, that are often reflections of social inequality. When we focus only on the latter, we not only risk mislabeling schools serving marginalized students as “bad,” but we miss an opportunity to shine a light on important aspects of schooling, like the arts, which actually improve outcomes like attendance, engagement and family involvement.
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We should also stop ranking and shaming schools, which does not lead to improvement and instead produces a slew of negative unintended consequences, like teaching to the test.
Because our schools are still responsible for students’ academic outcomes, policymakers and state agencies should be responsible for providing schools with the resources and support they need to be successful. And measures of school quality should provide stakeholders with information about the resources schools have — and lack.
Such reciprocal accountability would help us fulfill the original promise of federal involvement in education: that all students will have access to a quality education, regardless of their background or circumstances.
It is important to note that, under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states were given increased flexibility to incorporate more diverse measures of school quality into their accountability systems. In practice, this flexibility has not been used to its full potential, and test scores continue to be the primary factor in accountability determinations.
When Congress eventually reauthorizes ESSA, mandating and maximizing flexibility would allow states and districts the opportunity to determine which school measures are important to the public.
Still, flexibility can have drawbacks. Historically, the narrow and static nature of federal accountability has allowed officials to track educational student progress across race, socioeconomic status and disability status. Without that tracking, inequities will be harder to identify over time.
This point deserves key consideration in debates about accountability and is, perhaps, an argument for retaining standardized tests, albeit in a much smaller role, in future accountability systems.
School quality measurement is a nuanced and complex issue that requires a more comprehensive approach. While some of the suggestions above may sound difficult to deploy, several projects across the country, like MCIEA in Massachusetts, 5Essentials in Chicago and the CORE districts in California, have demonstrated that alternative approaches to accountability are possible.
Such projects measure school quality beyond standardized testing, distinguish between measures of school quality and broader societal inequality and balance simplicity with information richness and context.
We can create a more equitable and meaningful form of educational accountability in our nation, and we can start by asking: What does a good school look like?
Ashley Carey is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a former public school teacher. Jack Schneider, the Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Ethan Hutt, an associate professor and Gary Stuck Faculty Scholar in Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contributed to this op ed.
This story about going beyond test scores was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.