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Use Caution When Measuring School Quality

Kicking off this round of guest bloggers is Constance Lindsay, research associate at the Urban Institute. Constance previously served as a presidential management fellow at the U.S. Department of Education, and she was also responsible for implementing teacher evaluation and preparation legislation for DC Public Schools and the State of Delaware. Today she's joined by co-author James Ford, an independent consultant who serves on the North Carolina State Board of Education.

All data tell a story, even if it is incomplete. And while most parents aren't researchers interested in crunching numbers or doing analyses, they do want answers to the crucial question of "Is this a quality school?" No matter what ideological camp parents are in, you can be assured they all want to send their children to a "good" school. But what that means is not so simple.

In a post-education reform, test-fatigued era, measuring school quality can be a complicated exercise reflecting community values and politics. Without hard metrics on school quality, parents and other stakeholders are left to make assumptions often informed by all kinds of biases. Who can blame a parent or guardian for wanting to secure the best educational experience for their child? Research has shown that a good education has far-reaching implications for quality of life and social mobility.

However, the tools often used to assess schools are lacking and reinforce powerful stereotypes. Community perceptions about particular schools lead parents to make inferences about the children that attend, level of instruction, and climate of learning. Families in turn use this information to separate themselves in predictable ways that usually rely on already segregated housing patterns. As a result of these flawed measures, schools that are high poverty or serve a majority of students of color experience the most negative rankings.

Most recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 mandated that districts and schools produce report cards created for the purpose of rating school quality. But the factors that determine "quality" are still contested. When systems use test scores-based measures of accountability, the concern is that ratings may reflect the realities of demographic differences among children, rather than actual differences in school effectiveness. While this law certainly has the potential to paint a more accurate picture of schools, from an equity perspective, it also misses a lot of nuance. Everything can't be counted, and indeed parents value schools that improve outcomes not well measured by test scores, such as civic engagement and the ability to work with others. Student achievement can be captured by test scores, but student learning more broadly conceived has to be captured by multiple methods that might not show up on report cards. As such, many questions about the character of a school can go unanswered.

Couple these concerns with the evolution of choice systems—particularly in urban districts—and you find parents who are overwhelmed with information as they make high stakes decisions regarding where their students will attend school. Policymakers and stakeholders should make sure that parents can access holistic measures of school quality that don't reward schools for having traditionally advantaged populations. The current debates of socioemotional learning and how to deliver and capture students' grasp of those skills reflect a desire to embrace learning beyond traditional subject matter.

Information about school performance can be used for both decision making and accountability purposes. Each of these has their own unintended consequences that might serve to exacerbate equity gaps, rather than close them. 

School quality determination has equity implications—if we're not careful we will reinforce or even exacerbate existing inequities. In the rush to provide parents with information about school performance, we should take care to make sure we're measuring what matters. 

 —Constance Lindsay and James Ford

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