A new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education says the nation must move away from solely relying on test scores and graduation rates to evaluate high schools if it is to successfully stem the high school dropout crisis and prepare all students for college and careers. Instead, the brief, Moving Beyond AYP: High School Performance Indicators, calls for the use of more sophisticated indicators that can determine the factors that contribute to a school’s poor performance, guide the development of improvement strategies, and measure interim progress along the way.
“The ‘check engine’ light on your car tells you that you need to look under the hood, but it can’t tell you which specific part you need to replace,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Similarly, test scores and graduation rates can identify problem schools, but they can’t tell you why they’re low-performing. It’s time to move from simply looking underneath the hood to fixing the problem.”
According to the brief, national leaders and the education policy community have embraced the idea that the education system must establish college and career readiness as the goal for all students. There also has been widespread acknowledgement that addressing the problems in low-performing high schools is necessary if that goal is to be met. But, as education stakeholders look ahead to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, there is almost-universal consensus that the current federal accountability and school improvement systems need to be redesigned, infused with more and better data, and tailored to meet the individual needs of schools and students.
Under current law, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is used to measure how well schools are educating their students, but, according to the brief, it is not an effective tool for doing so at the high school level. For example, students’ proficiency in high school is gauged by how well they perform on state tests that often measure basic skills, not whether students are prepared for college and careers. Additionally, the rules for determining AYP have not included a consistent method for calculating graduation rates, considerations for the graduation rates of student subgroups, or requirements that graduation rates must increase meaningfully over time.
“In many ways, the current law whetted the nation’s appetite for education data by requiring the reporting of annual test information, and doing so at the subgroup level,” the brief states. “Now, educators, policymakers, and the public are eager for indicators that both better reflect the national goal of graduating all students ready for college and careers and help educators plan and implement strategies for getting them there.”
The brief envisions a new approach for how indicators can be used for high school accountability and school improvement. Under the new approach, AYP would be beefed up to include commonly calculated, accurate graduation rates and high-quality assessments based on common standards that measure college and career readiness. Only then could AYP truly determine whether high schools are meeting their ultimate goal of graduating every student prepared for college, careers, and life in the twenty-first century. At the same time, the beefed-up AYP would be accompanied by additional data that more clearly describes the challenges schools face, drives school improvement efforts, and recognizes progress toward established goals. Such a system, the brief says, would better illustrate high schools’ progress, trigger incentives or improvement actions, and inform decisionmaking.
“A school would continue to be considered low performing if had not met its ultimate goals as measured through AYP,” the brief reads. “However, by making progress on the other school performance indicators, a school would demonstrate that its current improvement strategies were positively influencing progress in the school, and were more than likely to lead to improved test scores and graduation rates. These signs of success would motivate school staff and students to continue their hard work, and guard schools from being subjected to a new improvement plan.”
The brief argues that this new approach should rely on performance indicators that research has shown are predictive of high school graduation and college and career readiness. It outlines several indicators that fit these criteria, including attendance, course success, on-track-to-graduation status, course-taking patterns, success on college- and career-ready assessments, postsecondary success rates, and school climate. It also describes the research behind these indicators, measurement options and challenges, and current use across the nation.
However, as the brief notes, embedding these additional indicators into the high school accountability and school improvement process raises a number of issues that policymakers will need to address. Specifically, they must define how indicators will work together; understand the relationships between indicators in order to avoid unintended consequences; decide how annual progress goals will be measured; build the technical infrastructure to define, collect, and report more data elements; and build educators’ capacity to use high school performance indicators and transform raw data into actionable knowledge.
The brief argues that federal policymakers can help leverage action at the state and local levels to improve teaching, learning, and student outcomes by embracing indicators of college and career readiness and embedding actionable high school performance indicators into the accountability and school improvement system. Specifically, it calls on federal policymakers to:
- establish graduation and college and career readiness as the goal for all students and high schools;
- improve national indicators for measuring college- and career-ready graduation;
- reinvent accountability and school improvement to include multiple high school performance indicators;
- invest in state and local systems to collect, analyze, and communicate data, including high school performance indicators;
- build the capacity of educators and education leaders to use high school performance indicators; and
- invest in research activities to inform the use of various high school performance indicators.
The brief is available for download here