The New World of School Accountability

As states craft new systems to identify low-performing schools, they should include a broader range of indicators.
January 4, 2017 AT 6:15 AM
By Samantha Batel  |  Contributor
A policy analyst at the Center for American Progess

Given November's election results, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of education policy. Yet at least one thing remains clear: Under the new K-12 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are required to put in place new systems to identify low-performing schools for improvement by the 2017-18 school year.

The U.S. Department of Education's accountability regulations extend this deadline by a year, but whether the regulations will pass muster under a new presidential administration remains to be seen. In the face of the unknown, state policymakers are drafting plans to meet the new law's requirements. Much of their attention is focused on which indicators of school quality or student success they will use to provide a more holistic measure of school performance than the test-based measures of the past. Under ESSA, these new indicators may measure factors such as student engagement, postsecondary readiness, and school climate and safety.

To help states design more innovative systems, the Center for American Progress (CAP) explored newer, less commonly used indicators that have recently caught the attention of state policymakers. These include measures of social and emotional learning, school climate and culture, and resource equity, such as access to highly effective teachers, early learning opportunities and adequate school funding.

The measures that CAP examined have strong relationships with positive student outcomes. However, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ESSA's predecessor, provided a disincentive for states to innovate in how school success is measured. For example, as a result of NCLB's more punitive sanctions, state policymakers largely limited non-academic measures to graduation and attendance rates.

With waivers from NCLB under the Obama administration, states began to expand their systems to provide a more comprehensive picture of school quality and student performance. Yet few states currently use any of the measures that CAP identifies. Only four states -- Illinois, Georgia, Nebraska and New Mexico -- use a measure of school climate and culture. Only five -- Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- use a measure of chronic absence, which can be a good proxy for how students feel about their school's climate. A handful of states use some measure of resource equity, such as student participation in the arts. No state uses a measure of social and emotional learning to classify schools.

As states consider which indicators to include in their new school classification systems, CAP's report recommends that states prioritize use of valid, reliable indicators such as chronic absenteeism and measures of college and career readiness. At the same time, states should be cautious about using new indicators to classify schools. For example, policymakers need more research to determine if survey measures of social and emotional learning are valid, reliable and cannot be gamed to make a school look better. School climate and culture surveys have been validated by research, although the long-term effects of survey results in school classifications are not known. States should exert caution when considering these data to classify schools because surveys may be vulnerable to manipulation in high-stakes settings.

Still, identifying which indicators to use to classify schools is only one part of states' challenge. Under ESSA, states have the opportunity to collect a broader array of information to support continuous improvement of all schools, not just those identified for support and intervention. CAP's new report argues that comprehensive accountability is a full system encompassing data collection and reporting; classification of school performance; tracking of how supports are directed and interventions are implemented; and assessment of resource allocation.

As a result, states should identify indicators that may help to spot students at risk for dropping out of high school, such as school climate indicators, and measures of social and emotional learning to improve classroom teaching and learning. States should also pay attention to indicators that are under a district's control, since much of the data used to classify schools are not immediately actionable by individual schools. Measures of resource equity, for example, have a significant effect on student achievement, but decisions about resource allocation are often made at the district level.

As states work under a deadline, they should keep a broader vision in mind. Accountability is not just school ratings, but rather an entire system designed to support school quality and student success.