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Aurora Institute

Why School Quality Measurement is an Equity Issue

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): James Noonan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on August 16, 2017.

Many reform-minded educators rally around the equity flag, determined to banish forever achievement gaps and opportunity gaps alike. It is a noble goal and one that I share.

Viewing the work of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) through an equity lens, I am ever mindful of the ways school quality measurement has historically been used to reinforce structural inequality. To take just one example, real estate companies catering to the demand for information on “good schools” rely on the standardized tests used by districts and states as a proxy for school quality. Not only do these tests represent relatively little of what families say they care about when choosing schools – for example, caring teachers, critical thinking curricula, and access to the arts among other things – but standardized tests are also highly correlated with race and class. In this sense, the colorblind language of “good schools” is in fact racially coded. Higher test scores do not signal good schools so much as they signal white schools or rich schools, and such misinformation only exacerbates already alarming rates of school and residential segregation.

Noting that publicly available test scores were “[t]he most influential indicator of school quality today,” researchers Mark Knoester and Wayne Au pointed out that test scores serve multiple purposes, only some of which are explicit:

The official reason testing is carried out in schools is because tests are used to evaluate, and supposedly, to improve schools. But we must also understand that testing is supported politically because it serves other purposes as well: Given its racist history and contemporary racist outcomes, high-stakes, standardized testing converts segregation, and its white supremacist impulses, into an ‘objective science.’ Testing allows parents and others to avoid the stigma of saying out loud that they favor segregation as they choose schools with a whiter and richer population for their own children. (2017, p. 11)

To truly contribute to education equity, then, we must find ways to connect our work to the cause of desegregation and the promotion of racially and economically integrated schools. No other education intervention has proven as durable or promising for improving educational equity.

On integration’s promise, the economist Rucker Johnson, in a 2011 paper, examined longitudinal data from a representative sample of over 8,000 Americans and found that African Americans who attended schools desegregated by court order were more likely than their peers to graduate, attend college, and earn a degree. They also had higher earnings and improved health. Just as notably, desegregation had no effects on white students. Summarizing decades of empirical research, a 2007 National Academy of Education analysis concluded that race-conscious school assignment policies were “the most effective means of achieving racial diversity and its attendant positive outcomes.”

But despite its promise, integration has never really been given a chance. Gary Orfield, professor at UCLA and director of the Civil Rights Project, recalled that integration emerged as an education policy response to civil rights violations, but that the pairing of civil rights and education policy began unraveling almost as soon as they were joined. Writing in 2014, he observed, “The last major civil rights law was enacted 55 years ago… [and] the first major decision limiting desegregation came 51 years ago.” Speaking on the public radio show This American Life, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones lamented a collective unwillingness to enact integration policy: “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids. And we will not talk about it. And it’s not even on the table.”

As a rallying cry, school quality measurement would seem to have less going for it than equity and integration. It is narrow and technical where integration is sweeping and visionary. But in fact, school quality measurement exerts uncommon influence on education policy debates, including debates about school assignment and school choice. To change the terms of the debate, we need to change the information we have available. All 50 states have data accountability systems, and all 50 states rely heavily on test scores that measure race and class far more consistently than they measure student learning. Narrow measures constrain our imaginationand our ability to talk expansively about schools, school quality, and equity.

MCIEA is attempting to demonstrate an expanded and transformed way of measuring (and therefore talking about) school quality. Its school quality framework is different from conventional and historical data systems in that it relies on multiple measures that (a) stakeholders have said they care about and (b) do not track race and class as consistently as test scores they seek to replace.

For more equitable schools, we need more integrated schools. And such a transformation depends on families making different choices and having courageous conversations about what matters to them and why. In reflecting on her decision to enroll her daughter in a high-poverty and highly segregated public school, Nikole Hannah-Jones admitted, “One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but,” she added, “if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change.”

Like Hannah-Jones, my choices about where to send my children to school matter. But to the extent that my work – and the work of MCIEA – can provide other families tools to make similar choices and to engage in substantive deliberations about equity, I hold out hope that change on a grander scale is also possible.

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James Noonan, Ed.D. is Project Director, School Quality Measures (MCIEA). Twitter: @_jmnoonan