This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on January 30, 2017.
Ask anyone who loves a school what exactly makes it special, and you are liable to hear a wide range of opinions: competent and caring teachers, a diverse and appropriately challenging curriculum, access to cutting edge technology, a variety of extracurricular activities, availability of special education support services, an established track record of academic performance; the list goes on. And yet, measures of school quality—largely based on student standardized test scores—have long remained disappointingly narrow, unable to capture the full complexity of school quality.
Beginning in 2014, in an effort to move school quality “beyond test scores,” a team led by Dr. Jack Schneider from the College of the Holy Cross, worked with district and city leaders in Somerville to produce a more holistic picture of school quality. Together, they developed a framework now being revised and piloted by a consortium of six school districts across the state (Attleboro, Boston, Lowell, Revere, Somerville, and Winchester).
Convened by CCE, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) is committed to more authentic ways of assessing student learning and school quality, addressing the shortcomings of current measurement systems by collecting data that is both broader in scope and deeper in substance. In so doing, MCIEA hopes to demonstrate that collecting better data can produce better outcomes for schools, students, and families.
Broadly speaking, the work of MCIEA is happening across two strands. At the classroom level, teacher-designed and curriculum-embedded performance assessments offer teachers a more nuanced and authentic way to assessing student learning, one that could over time replace standardized testing. At the school and district levels, the School Quality Measures (SQM) project aims to better model the diverse perspectives and experiences of a range of school stakeholders when assessing school quality.
The School Quality Measures project aims to describe the full measure of what makes a good school. Drawing on a close reading of public polling research and empirical research on factors related to school quality, and engaging in conversations with teachers, students, families, principals, and district administrators, we have identified five categories – the first three being essential inputs and the last two being key outcomes – and over 30 unique measures to capture the nuances of schools:
- Teachers and the Teaching Environment. This category measures the relevant abilities of a school’s teachers and the degree to which they are receiving the support they need to grow as professionals. It considers factors like teacher professional qualifications, effective classroom practices, and school-wide support for teaching development and growth.
- School Culture. This category measures the degree to which the school environment is safe, caring, and academically-oriented. It considers factors like bullying, student/teacher relationships, and regular attendance.
- Resources. This category measures the adequacy of a school’s facility, personnel, and curriculum, as well as the degree to which it is supported by the community. It considers factors like physical spaces and materials, class size, and family/school relationships.
- Indicators of Academic Learning. This category measures how much students are learning core academic content, developing their own academic identities, and progressing along positive trajectories. It considers factors like test score growth, performance assessments, engagement in school, problem solving, and college-going rates.
- Character and Wellbeing. This category measures the development of traits relevant for students leading full and rewarding lives—in society, the workplace, and their private lives. It considers factors like perseverance and determination, participation in arts and literature, and social and emotional health.
Importantly, the information collected using this school quality framework will not be used to rank schools. Rather, the information will be used to more precisely communicate the work of schools and to allow district and school leaders to better allocate energy and resources toward improvement, support teachers to advocate for the working conditions and resources they need to do their work well, and empower parents to make informed choices when selecting schools for their children.
One of the implicit assumptions of the current accountability system is that, when it comes to the measured outcomes, it is not possible for all schools to excel. Some schools win, while other schools lose, even if they are all doing well, even if the differences between them are so slight as to be inconsequential. In contrast, the MCIEA framework accounts for the possibility that all schools may be doing things well and, if so, they ought to be duly recognized. This does not mean that there is not always room for improvement, but it is an acknowledgment that school quality – like education writ large – is not a zero sum game. It’s time for it to be measured accordingly.
James Noonan, Ed.D. is Project Director, School Quality Measures (MCIEA). Twitter: @_jmnoonan