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Researchers Propose New Indicators for School Performance

Just as price-to-earnings ratios show the financial health of a business, researchers at Harvard University are developing common indicators that will help determine the health and performance of school systems.

The Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard today released three measures that schools can use to get a better sense of college-going patterns among their students. These new Strategic Performance Indicators (SPIs) were tested using 10 years of historical data in five districts: Boston; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Fort Worth, and Fulton and Gwinnett counties in Georgia.

Together, the districts serve 500,000 students and provide a snapshot of high school-to-college trends. In developing these indicators, Harvard partnered with 23 agencies to get feedback in the testing phase, says Sarah Glover, executive director of the Strategic Data Project at the Center.

Here's what the researchers examined:

1. Do college-going rates vary by demographic factors?

Gaps in college-enrollment rates do exist between white and black students, the Harvard researchers found. But when considering students with similar achievement and socioeconomic backgrounds, the gaps disappeared—and even reversed. By taking into account similarly situated Latinos and whites, the gap is cut in half. This means Latinos may face additional barriers that require a deeper analysis, and different groups may require different interventions, suggests Glover.

2. Do college-enrollment rates differ across high schools?

Yes, college-enrollment rates for students with similar academic qualifications can vary dramatically between high schools within a district, the indicator reveals. "High schools make a difference," says Glover.

3. Do high school graduates enroll in colleges that maximize their chance of success?

Not often enough, the Harvard research found. Too often, academically prepared students (as identified by GPA and college-entrance exam scores) don't stretch themselves to attend a selective college or attend at all. The message to schools that find this situation is to reach out to good students to ask about their college plans. "Dig here. These are kids that are hiding in plain sight," says Glover. "Go find them."

Most districts should have the data readily available to replicate this research, says Glover. The researchers built a tool kit for strategic data use that educators can access free here.

In the next 4-6 weeks, the Strategic Data Project plans to release indicators that measure teacher retention and the placement of novice teachers in districts.

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