When Congress recently enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it created a vitally important opportunity for States to improve low-achieving public schools. Congress required States to use, in addition to test scores, one or more indicators of "school quality or student success" as the basis for accountability, planning and reporting. That is, States must use such an indicator: to help identify which schools would be subjected to mandatory interventions; in comprehensive planning for their improvement; and for all public schools to report annually on their progress. In effect, ESSA is inviting States to expand their accountability focus from No Child Left Behind's failed exclusive emphasis on raising test scores to making changes that would improve school quality and student success.
Now, the 34 States which will submit their State plans to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) by September 18th ― the second round ― must decide which "school quality or student success" indicator(s) to adopt. ESSA gives the States vast discretion in making this decision.
If States select narrow and piecemeal indicators, the indicators would be virtually useless in improving schools. If, however, States select and properly implement comprehensive and holistic indicators, the indicators would be powerful tools for improving schools and student learning, especially for the disproportionately disadvantaged students concentrated in the lowest-achieving schools.
So, how should States select their indicators?
First, should they adopt indicators of "school quality," "student success" or both? A carefully chosen school quality indicator ― such as one measuring the extent of teacher collaboration or punitive discipline ― can reveal how much a school is engaging in practices that directly enhance or impair school effectiveness. Thus, school quality indicators can guide schools to which specific practices they need to address to become more effective.
By comparison, a "student success" indicator ― such as "college and career readiness" ― reveals how well students are doing by that measure and may distinguish successful from unsuccessful programs. But a student success measure tells nothing about which school practices are deficient or how to rectify them. A primary purpose of ESSA Title I ― of which the indicator requirement is part ― is to improve schools so that all students have the "opportunity to receive a… high-quality education." Accordingly, States should focus heavily on school quality indicators ― those which can help schools improve ― rather than on student success indicators.
Second, should States choose discrete, narrow quality indicators ― such as "chronic absenteeism" or "suspension rates" ― or a broader school climate survey that measures multiple climate conditions concurrently? While individual quality indicators like "chronic absenteeism" would reveal the extent of one isolated, negative school condition, measuring such indicator tells nothing about its cause nor how to rectify it. Moreover, a single factor indicator fails to address the many other conditions ― e.g. vision, leadership, expectations, instruction, curriculum level, discipline, and parent involvement ― that, together, produce low-achieving schools.
Rather, to improve schools, it's necessary to gather information about, and strengthen, the multi-faceted school climate itself. "A positive school climate, in which students are safe, engaged, and supported, is a foundation for social, emotional and academic development."
Third, between school climate surveys, should States choose relatively narrower surveys chiefly designed to promote students' health, safety and relationships, e.g., the California Healthy Kids Survey or comprehensive surveys designed chiefly to help schools improve, e.g., the School Climate Assessment Indicator (SCAI), or Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI)? Given Title I's purpose of improving schools so all children may receive a high-quality education, States should choose surveys specifically designed for that purpose.
Finally, among comprehensive surveys, the best survey for States to choose would be the one whose questions and structure provide the most useful information and guidance for how to improve individual schools and has the highest correlation between its measure of school climate and student achievement. For reasons described in "States' Crucial Choice Under New Federal Education Law: Selecting the Best Survey to Measure and Improve School Quality," that survey is SCAI.
States should adopt comprehensive school climate surveys for accountability purposes because that would maximize the incentive for schools to focus on improving climate, rather than raising test scores per se: avoiding mandatory interventions.
But, even if certain States choose not to adopt comprehensive surveys for accountability, it would be invaluable for them to adopt such surveys voluntarily to diagnose schools' needs, prepare school improvement plans and report to the public on schools' progress.
More than anything, success under ESSA requires focusing on helping schools improve. States requiring use of comprehensive school climate surveys would do exactly that.
For America's millions of disadvantaged students and their families desperately waiting for their schools to improve, the States need to take advantage of this invaluable tool. The time is now.