Apr 26, 2011
The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will allow policymakers to reconsider how school performance reporting systems might incorporate educational goals beyond those emphasized in the No Child Left Behind Act. Researchers identified states' most commonly used measures, examined trade-offs, and developed options for improving school performance measurement. They recommend that the new law require states to expand their performance measures, and they suggest measures in five areas that the law might include. They also recommend leveraging federal grant programs to encourage states to develop and evaluate new measures.
When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it established a system of school accountability based primarily on student performance on tests of mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA). Critics have lamented that NCLB's accountability system has prioritized these subjects at the expense of other important goals, such as preparing students for college and improving social and behavioral outcomes, including self-discipline, the ability to work in teams, civic-mindedness, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The upcoming reauthorization of ESEA will provide an opportunity to reconsider how school performance reporting systems might incorporate these other educational goals. This study focuses on how ESEA can encourage states to expand their measures of school performance to address goals beyond mathematics and ELA.
In discussions with the Sandler Foundation, key federal policymakers involved in reframing ESEA legislation expressed uncertainty about the research basis for expanding measures of school performance. In response, the foundation asked RAND to examine measures that states and districts use beyond those required under NLCB and to outline a set of principles to inform public education agencies about trade-offs associated with the new measures. To do this, RAND researchers convened a panel of experts on school accountability policies, scanned published research, conducted interviews with staff from local and state education agencies and research institutions, and reviewed the measures employed in each state that publishes its own school ratings in addition to those required under NCLB. They identified the most commonly used measures, examined the trade-offs in developing school indicator systems, and developed a set of promising options for how the new federal legislation can promote improvement in school performance measurement. They recommend that the reauthorized ESEA require states to expand their measures of school performance without dictating the specific measures states must use. They also recommend leveraging other federal grant programs to encourage states to develop and evaluate new measures.
RAND found 20 states that published ratings of schools in 2008–2009 or 2009–2010 based on measures beyond those required by NCLB. These measures fall into four categories:
In addition, the authors identified three other types of measures that are rapidly becoming more common among states:
There is little research about how adopting additional measures such as those described above affects school performance. However, the potential benefits of an expanded set of measures are that they could
When designing student indicator systems, decisionmakers must consider the characteristics of each measure and how it will be used in an accountability context. The authors identified several trade-offs. An important one is the balance between breadth—representing more of the outcomes that matter—and focus—highlighting a few areas where educators should concentrate their efforts. Another involves balancing complexity—for example, statistical measures that might be difficult for educators and the general public to understand—against transparency—simpler measures that are easier to interpret but less useful for decisionmaking. Policymakers must also balance comprehensiveness—the ability to measure many facets of school performance—against affordability. And, they must weigh uniformity, which would allow easy comparisons across states, against flexibility, which would permit innovation and promote local relevance. Decisions about such trade-offs must be informed by the local context and the goals the system is intended to promote.
There is insufficient research to recommend specific measures, but research on high-stakes testing indicates that educators tend to focus on what is measured. A federal mandate requiring states to broaden their school outcome measures might allow stakeholders to draw more valid inferences on school performance that better reflect the multiple goals of schooling and could create incentives for educators to focus on processes or outcomes that were underemphasized in the past. The researchers recommend the following:
The reauthorization of ESEA should be informed by lessons learned from NCLB and other efforts to promote school-level measurement and accountability. This study describes promising directions for expanding the set of measures schools have at their disposal.