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New Data Tool Rates 'Educational Opportunity' Offered in Nation's Schools, Districts

An interactive data tool from the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University creates the first database that attempts to measure the performance of every elementary and middle school in the country. 

The data set not only provides academic achievement for schools, districts, and states around the country, but it also allows those entities to be compared to one another, even though they don't all use the same state tests. The data were collected for grades 3 through 8, between 2008-09 and 2015-16.

The tool "puts all of these test score measures on a common scale and lets you compare Philadelphia to Peoria, or whatever you want to do," said Sean Reardon, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the director of the project. 

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The tool offers three pieces of data: average test scores, learning rates, and trends in test scores. 

Average test scores are easy to understand. But, as Reardon notes, test scores measure a student's opportunities both in and out of school. For example, students who have learning opportunities outside of school, such as from their parents, preschool, or other community resources, can score higher on tests than those who don't have that same support. For that reason, Reardon said, test scores alone are an imperfect way to evaluate schools and districts.  

Learning rates measures how effectively a school, district, or state does its job at moving students along academically. Reardon said this measurement is one of the most important to look at, and offers this analogy: Hospitals should not be assessed on their health of their patients, but how well they do at getting patients on the road to recovery. Similarly, evaluating schools just on test scores can overlook how well those schools boosting the academic achievement of students who attend. 

The measure of trends in test scores captures both changes in the community as well as the change in the quality of the school, district, or state over time. 

To see the tool in action, here's a look at the 155,000-student Dallas, Texas, district.

The interactive tool shows that on average, the district scores about one grade level below the national average. The district's learning rate is also a few percentage points lower than the national average, but similar to school systems with similar socioeconomics. 

Now take a look at the Dallas district in Oregon, which has about 3,200 students:

The interactive tool offers additional data, which shows that students in Dallas, Ore., score about a half-grade lower on standardized tests than other students in the country. But students are learning 9 percent more at each grade level, which places the Oregon district ahead of otherwise similar school systems.

Reardon said that the tool can be a powerful way for educators and policy makers to see how their schools and districts are performing compared to similar districts in other states, not just to those that happen to be nearby.

'It doesn't tell us, by itself what to do about it., but it's a way to benchmark the opportunities that schools and communities are providing," Reardon said.

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