The Case for New Metrics

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) introduces a major policy shift. Responsibility is going back to the states for setting academic standards and holding schools accountable for ensuring that students are learning.

With each state now determining its own metrics for gauging student success, the question arises: how can states ensure that a student graduating from a high school in Ohio, who achieved a proficiency rating on required exit exams, is equally prepared for college level study as a student with a similar academic profile graduating in Oregon? The short answer: they can’t. MIT does not have different academic standards for students from Massachusetts versus Kentucky. And, General Electric does not have different career competencies for building airplane engines for students graduating in New York versus Pennsylvania. Can states agree on some common measures of college and career readiness?

Under ESSA, states have greater flexibility in defining the metrics that will demonstrate how well its schools are preparing students for college and careers. Yet will these test scores and other measures really tell us anything? Or, will they act as “Linus’ security blanket providing comfort but shielding reality.” How will the public know if student outcomes are really improving nationally or if it is just more of the same?

It seems time to think about a new set of metrics that can help the public gauge how well states are educating students. Some questions:

  1. Absent one set of assessments that states will collectively administer, how do we determine whether student outcomes are improving?
  2. Are states preparing students for postsecondary education?
  3. Are states preparing students to enter the workforce and meet the economic needs of their communities?

Now, let’s consider what an accountability system that addresses these three issues would look like.

Absent one set of assessments that states will collectively administer, how do we determine whether student outcomes are improving?

While the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) may be imperfect, it can certainly shine a light on the performance of states. The State NAEP program allows for interstate comparisons in math, reading, science and writing on a periodic basis. NAEP sampling provides data for student subgroups that can help measure a state’s success in closing achievement gaps. I imagine that in states where students continue to do poorly on NAEP assessments, critics can point to a possible disconnect between the NAEP frameworks and the state’s learning standards. Of course, that disconnect may also encourage educators, parents and elected officials to ask why our standards are so out of sync with what students in other states are learning.

What is lost in all of the political fervor surrounding local control is that students and parents can’t know if their state’s investment in education is putting students on equal footing with students in other states. We need readily understandable information to be informed consumers of education.

Are states preparing students for postsecondary education?

Can we rely on states’ high school graduation rates as good indicators? Probably not without a uniform national standard. However, we can measure if high school graduates entering college are adequately prepared to do college-level work. Let’s include in our accountability system:

  • The percent of freshmen taking remedial courses and how many remedial courses they take;
  • The percent of students persisting in college from freshman to sophomore year; and
  • The percent of students graduating college on time versus needing one or two additional years for completion.

Students who are college ready do not need a significant amount of remediation and should be able to persist with a full credit load to graduate on time. Remedial courses result in students taking fewer credit bearing courses which extends the time they need to meet all requirements for graduation.

Are states preparing students to enter the workforce and meet the economic needs of their communities?

Some ideas for states to pursue:

  • Survey employers to identify their expectations for college graduates and whether those expectations are being met; and
  • Survey employees after a few years in the workforce to assess the effectiveness of their education in being successful in their careers. What additional education or training would they have benefited from?

Under ESSA, the states rather than the federal government determine the expected student performance in their accountability systems. States can more closely align their strategic educational vision with how they deploy their fiscal and human capital resources to achieve that vision. States need to embrace this flexibility through ESSA to undertake a leadership role in charting a state-specific course to better serve their students. By committing to a transparent and comprehensive way to measure state progress, a model of continuous improvement can be established and the public and the students will be better served.