George Lucas Educational Foundation

Going Beyond NCLB and Assessing Schools Differently

May 10, 2011

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 -- the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) -- they are just about all we consider while judging a school's performance.

Under most 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 our society expects of its public schools) doesn't technically count.

Many hope that in the next iteration of ESEA, federal policymakers will change that. And to help guide their work, RAND Education (with the support of the Sandler Foundation) released a new report that examined expanded measures of school performance and how they could be incorporated into federal law.*

Trends in Expanded Measures

RAND found that 20 states currently publish 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 absolute test scores, rather than focusing only on proficiency or above
  • College-readiness measures (such as ACT scores or enrollment in Advanced Placement courses)

There are also some emerging categories, including school environment (such as students' perceptions of school climate) and whether a school engages in frequent formative assessments.

Expanded Measures in Action

At the launch of this report, RAND representatives pointed to North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg as an example of a district doing a good job in taking a comprehensive view of school performance.

As required under NCLB, schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg publicly report their AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) status, which offers a glimpse at the overall performance of a school, as well as the performance of student subgroups (racial, economic, language, and disability) on state standardized assessments.

In addition, interested stakeholders can look at the supplemental information that North Carolina collects on school climate, including suspension/expulsions and student access to books and technology (including such measures as the number of students per internet-connected computer and the average age of the media center/library collection). Or the state's reports on a school's teacher quality (including the number of National Board Certified teachers and teacher experience in a school).

But the district itself goes deeper than numbers, with its School Quality Review program. Developed to give a clear picture of the quality of education provided in the school, it consists of a two-day qualitative investigation of a school's achievement, learning and teaching, curriculum, leadership and management, learning environment, and parent and community involvement.

The review is conducted by a team of three highly experienced and trained educators. It consists of 10 classroom observations; four questioning sessions with groups of students, teachers, administrators and parents; observation of a collaborative meeting of teachers; and several meetings with the principal. Prior to the review, the school prepares a self-evaluation that helps reveal its perception of itself and foster a reflective discussion among the staff. After the review, the school receives a detailed final report that includes recommended actions for the school.

Bringing Expanded Measures to Scale

This type of accountability system is infinitely more valuable than one focused on standardized test scores. It both provides meaningful performance information for stakeholders and concrete ideas for how school staff can immediately begin to improve their work.

Of course, it also requires more capacity than one focused on standardized tests, which (given current fiscal realities) might prevent states and districts from attempting to replicate it in the near future.

However, as RAND points out, there may be a role for the federal government here. Certainly not in issuing mandates -- I was pleased to see that while RAND recommended that ESEA reauthorization "incorporate a broader range of measures as a basis for accountability decisions than is currently mandated under NCLB," they also pointed out that there is "insufficient evidence to make specific choices about which measures should be used." But perhaps federal policy could give states the choice in measures within a set of predefined categories (for example, promoting positive school culture). And given state capacity issues, RAND suggested the federal government incorporate the development and evaluation of new measures into existing grant programs.

We know the direction accountability needs to go, and we have examples like Charlotte-Mecklenburg to provide us an excellent starting point in developing models to get us there. Policymakers need to push us forward without tying hands at the state or district level or creating disincentives for us to hold schools to high standards. Hopefully, they do so.

*Disclaimer: The organization Anne O'Brien works for, the Learning First Alliance, co-hosted with the Sandler Foundation an event to release this report.

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