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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Five Ways of Looking at School Quality (That Aren't Test Scores)

The word “data” is common currency in education, but the work of transforming schools requires we take a more expansive view of school quality and of what counts as valid data.

Traditional measures of school quality – standardized test scores, graduation rates, per pupil spending – generate useful information but they also paint an incomplete picture of what happens day-to-day in classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards. What’s more, these measures tend to be closely associated with student demography. Schools that serve larger percentages of white and wealthier students tend to score well on these metrics while schools that serve larger percentages of economically marginalized students of color tend to score less well.

In reality, all schools are strong in some areas and have room for improvement in other areas. A system that measured more of what families and teachers and students cared about – like the one being built by the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) – would better reflect these nuances. MCIEA’s school quality measures framework uses more than 30 unique measures, including administrative data as well as surveys from teachers and students, to paint a more holistic picture of schools.

What makes a good school?

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In this post, we share just a few examples of data – featured at MCIEA’s 2019 policy forum on “The New Accountability” – that help to portray the full measure of schools.

First, standardized tests are just one way students demonstrate what they know. For that matter, these tests only assess students’ knowledge and ability in a narrow band of disciplines. Healthy school communities also provide students opportunities to express themselves and develop competence across a number of disciplines, including music and visual arts and drama. At this school, students received an average of five hours per week of arts instruction and students reported an emerging interest in arts activities outside of school.

More Than Test Scores

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Second, when we asked families and teachers about what made a healthy school, they consistently talked about a strong and collaborative professional community among educators. Indeed, empirical research has consistently found that a school environment where adults learn together and from each other is critical for student learning as well. In this school, surveyed teachers reported a shared instructional vision, a sense of responsibility for each other’s learning, and a capacity to wrestle with important issues.

Better Data

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Third, survey measures highlight areas for improvement. In the excerpt of student survey data below, students reported relatively low levels of engagement, and in response a teacher, committed to finding new ways to engage students. One approach to designing more authentic, engaging, and culturally responsive curriculum taken in many MCIEA schools is to collaborate the development of high-quality performance-based tasks.

More Holistic Data

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Finally, in addition to highlighting the unique strengths and challenges in each school, data emerging from MCIEA’s school quality measures work also showcase common elements across schools and districts. One of these is a heightened level of stress among students of all ages and a perception that grades and test scores determine their future. Across all MCIEA districts, two-thirds of 5,127 fourth and fifth graders said that they believed test scores would determine their future “quite a bit” or “very much.”

Mciea Sqm Poster Test Stress 01

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In a real sense, these students are right. In a policy environment where students’ test scores determine not only students’ future but also the future of the schools they attend students end up shouldering a lot of responsibility. A more balanced system, then – one which used multiple measures that reflected the full range of what families, students, teachers, and leaders say they care about – would not only communicate the marvelous complexity of schools, but it might also relieve some of the anxiety we’ve let students carry these last 20 years.