George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Going Beyond NCLB and Assessing Schools Differently

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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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Patrick Groff's picture

As a longtime teacher, and teacher educator, I must challenge Ann OBrien's notion that almost all of today's teachers of children have the simple knowledge and sensitivity necessary to accurately determine exactly how much academic information their students have aquired. I thus must ask her: Have you conducted several empirical examinations as to how well most teachers can accurately apply your model, as versus the numbers who can not do so? Until I can find that this determination of how much children have learned, as versus what standardized tests indicate, I must conclude that Ms. OBrien is guilty of wishful thinking.

Cari Begin's picture

I was happy to read this, as I was one of the trained School Quality "Reviewers" in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. I was proud to be part of this team. It is an amazing learning experience for the reviewers and the schools. This is not a perfect solution, I haven't seen one yet, but it is a step in the right direction. Using processes like School Quality Review (SQR), effective teacher evaluations and student performance (qualitative and quantitative) we will get closer to truly understanding what works in our schools.
It irritates me to hear people continually poking holes in possible solutions without offering their own solutions. We all know we can't keep the status quo. Bring ideas, our kids are depending on us!

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance

Cari, I am so glad that you read the post! Again, I think that the model Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a great one, and I hope that other districts will be able to take what you all have done and use it to help meet the needs of their communities.

I also echo your call to have those who poke holes in possible solutions to offer their own! I too get quite frustrated by those who constantly complain without really working to improve the situation.

Patrick, I am a little confused by your comment. I cannot find where I imply that "almost all of today's teachers of children have the simple knowledge and sensitivity necessary to accurately determine exactly how much academic information their students have acquired." I am also slightly confused to what you interpret my proposed "model" as being. The purpose of this piece is to suggest that current accountability systems are not sufficient, and that there are examples of places that are moving in the right direction. I do not believe that there is any one model that currently exists that could be implemented with success in all locations. I do believe that what we have now is not working, and if we are serious that we want all children to have the opportunity to receive a great education (and I personally am serious about that), we have to move forward. We cannot accept the status quo - it is not working for too many kids.

Michael Paul Goldenberg's picture
Michael Paul Goldenberg
mathematics coach

@Patrick Groff - Intriguing: given the choice between trusting a human with a working relationship with her students and a machine-scored (but humanly-constructed test, written by people with no such individual knowledge of the kids being tested), you opt for the choice with LESS information and LESS evaluative sensitivity. Of course, you no doubt think that the test is more "objective." But that's because tests of this sort are terribly blunt instruments. They make excellent clubs against teachers, too, just like real blunt instruments. What does that say about your beliefs about teachers, people, machines, and clubs?

SaraF's picture
Seventh grade math teacher, Washington State

I am really interested in the work you have been part of in North Carolina. I have just three years of teaching experience, but I try to stay informed in the progress of education reform. The SQR process described by Anne and yourself seem as though it could be used in tandem with some level of standardized testing. Curious if this would be a possibility or would there be too much of a financial burden for states to accommodate a certain level of both approaches?

Leslie H.'s picture
Leslie H.
4th Grade math, science, and social studies teacher - New Orleans, LA

To say that I am beginning this school year with a positive and refreshed attitude is an understatement. For the first time in my career, I am feeling the extreme pressures of the NCLB's ideals of basing teacher and student performance solely on the back of standardized test scores. I teach in a relatively low socioeconomic populated school. The homeroom class you begin with in August is certainly not the homeroom class you have when testing begins in April. I have students just coming into the country, students whose parents do not stress the importance of school, and students who simply do not have the desires to perform. Yet, nearly all the accountability rests on my shoulders.

Every day I ask myself when the parents will be held accountable! A student is not sent to school because they need to stay home to babysit their siblings in inexcusable; however, there is nothing I can do about this. A student comes to school and sleeps all day because the violence in the household or neighborhood kept them up all night is inexcusable, yet there is nothing I can do about this.

I suppose my biggest questions are when are parents and guardians going to be held accountable and will teachers ever be able to just teach again without the stresses of a test at the end of the year. Despite the research done on the retention level of students coming from a low socioeconomic background, we continue to push the fact that one standardized test at the end of a school year determines the effectiveness of the teacher who serves as teacher, parent, nurse, psychiatrist, and friend!

Lancaster Jones's picture
Lancaster Jones
Parent of Physicist

I dislike when people claim standardized testing is a "misrepresentation". It seems to be a very American thing to say, perhaps because we so often make excuses for failures.
Do you honestly believe that the average person going to Harvard or Princeton on merit is not vastly more intelligent and generally how we want our kids to be, than the person who gets a B in pre-calc in high school?
The only thing separating these two are standardized tests.
HCG drops

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