September 29, 2016

Grading Schools: How States Should Define “School Quality” Under the Every Student Succeeds Act

By Chad Aldeman

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The way we evaluate American schools is outdated. We too often identify “low-performing” schools by where students end up at the end of the year, while ignoring how much progress they made in that time. We’ve ignored students in certain grades and subjects, and we’ve been willfully blind to whether or not students are truly prepared for college or careers when they graduate high school.

The window is now open for a smarter conversation about how to improve our nation’s schools. Confronted with a strong desire for better ways to measure school quality and for more nuanced responses to the results, Congress replaced the 13-year-old No Child Left Behind Act with a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA requires states to design their own accountability systems, and it gives them much more flexibility over how those systems are built and what consequences happen as a result.

In “Grading Schools: How States Should Define ‘School Quality’ Under the Every Student Succeeds Act,” author Chad Aldeman argues that accountability systems are a state’s best tool to signal what it values and how schools should be working to improve. But if states fail to take advantage of that opportunity, they may not provide sufficient urgency for schools to improve, especially for the disadvantaged students who rely on public schools the most and who have historically been underserved by them. 

The paper presents a roadmap for states to use ESSA as an opportunity to do accountability better, not just differently. It starts by challenging states to rethink the purpose and goals of their accountability systems and the proper role for them to play in the education system. States can use their school rating systems to provide clear evidence to parents and the general public about what’s happening in schools, while also sending clear signals to school leaders and teachers about how they need to improve.

Those school rating systems must be simple, clear, and fair for schools. States could employ a range of indicators to accomplish these objectives, but they must be vigilant against creating overly complex systems. Moreover, in the rush to add new measures, states must guard against creating incentives that subtly encourage schools to game the system rather than respond in ways that boost student outcomes.  

The paper offers ways states could use test scores in smarter ways than they have done in the past, make sure they’re capturing progress over time, and rely on test results merely as a starting point for further investigation. Under this model, states would use test results as an initial “flag” of low performance, but then rely on holistic, on-site school reviews from professionally trained inspectors as a way to both investigate school quality and suggest ways to improve. 

Historically, states have struggled to make the leap from identifying schools for improvement to actually helping them improve. Read the full paper here or expand the viewer below for more on how states can design school accountability systems that accomplish both of these goals.

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