Measuring School Quality: Non-Academic Measures in the Every Student Succeeds Act

Martin J. Blank, President, Institute for Educational Leadership and Director, Coalition for Community Schools

The education community is facing a tough question: How do we measure school quality in their accountability systems, as mandated in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? In everyday nomenclature, the law expects schools to be measured by at least one "non-academic" indicator such as student engagement, educator engagement, school climate and safety, chronic absence, and social and emotional learning, among others. As states work through the process of deciding which indicator(s) to use, it's important to keep in mind several factors.

First, there is continuing debate about testing for non-academic indicators like social and emotional learning, grit, or even whether students have a growth mindset. While research is showing that each of these skills are important to young people's learning and development, and indeed their ability to compete in the 21st century marketplace, that does not mean they should be tested. As some have suggested, not everything that matters can or should be tested.

There are two reasons to reject student-level testing in these areas. First, experts (Carole Dweck and Angela Duckworth) argue that the field is not sufficiently developed to have tests that researchers consider valid and reliable as mandated by the law. More research and development on these non-academic indicators is necessary before these measures should be considered for placement within an accountability system.

Secondly, ESSA maintains the testing requirement for academic achievement that was included in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). We don't need to be testing young people for anything else. We know that the testing mandate under NCLB led to numerous unintended consequences including a narrower curriculum, conflicts among teachers, school systems and states, as well as a public movement to opt out of testing, which reduces broad support for public education. Adding another test is not the answer.

What non-academic measures then might work to assess school quality? It's important to start by thinking about what we're trying to accomplish with these new accountability indicators.

From my perspective, we are not just identifying measures to help decide which school is among the 5% in need of improvement or is poorly serving particular subgroups of young people. What we should be seeking are measures that help us more fully understand the forces that are influencing student learning and development. That approach can lead to what ESSA describes as locally crafted "comprehensive support and improvement strategies" for low performing schools and students, rather than the top-down turnaround schemes of No Child Left Behind.

Experience tells us that a variety of factors noted in ESSA influence student learning and development -- health and safety, bullying, adverse punishment and inappropriate discipline, chronic absence, and school climate and safety, to name a few. These non-academic factors not only hurt individual students, but can drive the culture of the schools where our children are learning. If states choose the right kind of non-academic indicators, they will be encouraging educators to explore with families and their broader community how to address the challenges implicit in these measures and build sustainable improvement efforts.

Let's look at chronic absence and school climate as two strong examples of non-academic indicators. Chronic absence is defined by Attendance Works as "missing 10% of the days of the school year whether those days were excused or unexcused." This indicator asks us to look at why particular schools have high chronic absence and opens the door to deeper conversations about the circumstances in our children's lives that influence their educational success. The importance of being present to succeed in school also is undeniable.

Here is a simple example. In a recent leadership program run by the Institute for Educational Leadership, chronic absence was up for discussion. One principal, when faced with this challenge, merely suggested that the problems were with students' families. A second principal went out in the community to investigate and found that the chronically absent children were living in migrant worker camps. Their parents were leaving home early in the morning to carve out a meager living, and no one was home to help get the kids to school. Now that principal had the story behind the data and could respond more effectively to address the underlying issues beyond the data.
Other factors such as health or mental health issues, family economic circumstances, family housing conditions, and an unresponsive school environment are all contributors to this chronic attendance problem.

School climate is another area for consideration as a non-academic indicator. The National School Climate Center says that:

"A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and learning...This climate includes: norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe; people are engaged and respected...educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning; and each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment."

A positive school climate is what many people say they "feel" when they walk in the school door.

There are a series of validated surveys on the U.S. Department of Education website that can be used with young people, parents, and educators to measure school climate. And there is now research that demonstrates the link between climate and student achievement.

Whether states select chronic absence, school climate, or other measures as non-academic indicators, the Coalition for Community Schools encourages state and local education agencies to use Results-Based Accountability (RBA) to plan for how they will "turn the curve" on a particular measure. RBA asks users to identify important performance measures, find out the story behind the data - what are the specific causes, who are the partners that can help improve performance measures, what evidence do we have of what works - and then develop a strategy and an action plan. It's a relatively simple process that is being used around the world and in some school districts. RBA focuses on what matters most, which is the improved results we are seeking, and moves toward a model of shared accountability.

In today's education reform world some argue that "we only manage what we measure." If that's right then we better measure the right thing. That's why the process of selecting non-academic indicators that matter to students' lives is so important. Equally important is having the best tools at the systems and school levels to implement an effective planning process that leads to better performance. Both are critical to the education of our most vulnerable young people.