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OPINION: Time to rethink how we measure student progress in education

We grade students throughout their lives, but have you ever wondered how we would measure our communities when it comes to things that truly matter, like student outcomes? What grades would they get?

Disparities abound, from students who have been unable to make a  quick switch to distance learning because they lack access to technology to families struggling with basic needs such as food and housing.

That’s why, when it comes to maintaining an equitable status quo, the only appropriate grade for most U.S. schools is an F. And that’s the state we find many of our institutions in as the current pandemic lays bare the inequities of our education system.

And yet, some communities are working to create a world where a child’s potential isn’t dictated by race, ethnicity, ZIP code or circumstance. These are communities that believe confronting inequitable systems requires more than Zoom subscriptions.

Despite our current shortcomings, we have a great opportunity to rethink how we measure student progress in education and how we use real-time data to address these inequities.

Related: Tests are not the problem; how they are used can be

Though we have worked for decades to close the so-called “achievement gap,” the gaps in our schools today are as big as they were 50 years ago.  We expect that Covid-19 will make them grow even wider.

We may not know how much wider, though, because methods and data we’ve relied on for decades to measure student progress — standardized tests and traditional grades — may not be available this year.

The true measure of strength in our school systems will be how well they perform under pressure. Take what’s happening in South Carolina. In Spartanburg County, districts adopted a continuous improvement model, piloting the approach in the 2018-19 school year. They designed short-cycle assessments that happen every five to 10 days, allowing for constant attention to what is working well for students.

They also focused on overcoming barriers created by racism and poverty by tackling the causes of those issues specifically. This has resulted in significant progress across four schools, including a 60 percent increase in third grade reading proficiency from 2018 to 2019. 

We have a great opportunity to rethink how we measure student progress in education and how we use real-time data to address these inequities.

The collaborative improvement approach piloted in Spartanburg has been championed by StriveTogether and applied in nearly 70 communities across the country since 2015, including Central Texas,  Salt Lake City and Northfield, Minnesota, with remarkable results. It’s a unique take on continuous improvement that equips leaders to analyze data with a lens to improve outcomes and eliminate disparities.

This way, challenges and opportunities can be addressed as they arise, not the following year. With data at their fingertips, school staff can target outreach to assist students and use the data to make education accessible to all students.

When schools closed due to the pandemic in Northfield, Minnesota, the community movement Northfield Promise focused on students at risk of falling behind. Partnering with the local school district, Northfield Promise used Tableau, a visual analytics platform, to create a map of students without internet access as well as neighborhoods with high concentrations of families living in poverty.

Educators need short-cycle, real-time data that provides insights for teachers to continuously improve learning opportunities for each and every child. They need data that provides a look at what a child currently is experiencing. This supports an individualized strategy, giving teachers and students tools when they need them.

Many school districts across the country have also revisited their approach to traditional A-to-F grades during the coronavirus pandemic, because learning experiences have been so varied. In Palo Alto, California, and Madison, Wisconsin,  these different methods are helping reduce the gaps in racial and other disparities.

Attention to equity issues, poverty and race is essential; the linkages to academic outcomes are evident.

Continuous improvement is a problem-solving science. It’s about taking big goals and breaking them down into small ones that are frequently evaluated and course-corrected when necessary.

As in all sciences, these ideas are being tested and supported by real data. More than ever, we need leadership that values sharing and applying best practices across the country.

Children are learning more than just what is being presented to them in classrooms. By observing how our communities respond to social issues like systemic racism or pivot during a crisis, they also see who is valued and who isn’t. 

We know this kind of approach works. What doesn’t work is when we hold onto systems that are doing a disservice to our children. Excuses like fear of the unknown or comfort with the status quo don’t lead to equitable results.

If we want to make the grade for our children, we’d better get to work.

Jennifer Blatz is president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national nonprofit working in nearly 70 communities across the U.S. to drive large-scale community improvement through partnership with local leaders and organizations.

This story about continuous improvement was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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