Vail Daily column: Better measures of success
July 12, 2016
Schools are often rated and judgments are made on the basis of academic test scores. While these scores can be informative and useful, the limitations of these measures are well known and some have wondered if their greatest use is in verifying where money is — and is not — in terms of student demographics.
In spite of these limitations, Eagle County Schools does keep close tabs on our academic performance data. We have developed a measurement dashboard of sorts which we call our System Academic Indicators.
Our System Academic Indicators measure student outcomes at all the age levels we serve, ranging from preschool measures like language and math development, elementary and middle school measures gathered from our own formative reading assessments and some state required assessments, and high school measures such as taking and passing early college credit courses and college entrance exams as well as the culminating measure of our graduation rate.
In each of these areas, we benchmark our outcomes against the best performing education systems in the world, both those inside and outside of the United States. In some areas, such as our preschool measures and middle school English language arts, our outcomes are right at world-class expectations. In other areas, such as our mathematics scores and college entrance exam scores, we've got some work to do.
Politicians and education reformers like to use these sorts of systems to rank, blame and shame our schools and the people working in them. For Eagle County Schools, rather than trying to find someone to blame, we believe these tell us how our entire system (both in school and out of school) is doing in preparing students academically. More importantly, it informs us of what is working and also where we must make changes to prepare our students for their future.
Our System Academic Indicators are important to us because they help us see where we are, what is working, and where we need to concentrate our efforts. While important, academic indicators are also only part of the picture. We have literally decades of education research telling us these indicators are heavily influenced by out-of-school factors like student poverty and home environment.
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For all the hot air and fuss about test scores and rankings, the reality is that we are never going to have the kind of impact we want on academic measures unless we also confront the out-of-school factors that have an even greater impact on student results.
That's why we are now also building a companion to our System Academic Indicators which looks more holistically at how our students are doing and develops a much more rounded picture of how our entire community system is serving kids.
While these System Holistic Indicators — the name is a work in progress — are still in development, we're looking at quality measures from the Gallup Student Poll including student engagement (involvement and enthusiasm for school), hope (ideas and energy for the future), entrepreneurial aspiration, and career/financial literacy.
We also have data from the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which tells us about student physical activity and nutrition, safety of home and school environments, drug use, and mental and sexual health.
We're also looking at how we might measure student exposure to a set of negative experiences the Centers for Disease Control call "Adverse Childhood Experiences." These experiences include things such as abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), household challenges (domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness, family strife and incarceration), and both emotional and physical neglect.
Not surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control found that the accumulation of these experiences in children dramatically increased the probability of a number of negative outcomes including disrupted brain development and impairments, the adoption of unhealthy lifestyles, increased disability, disease and social problems, and even early death.
Clearly, our schools can't address all of these issues alone. But if we are serious about really measuring how our kids are doing, and whether our community is doing all it can to set them on a strong foundation, then we need a broader approach than just academic indicators.
Having a quality in-school academic experience is important, but we've got to go much deeper and address root-cause issues in a meaningful way if we really want to have a significant impact. Further, we've got to consider more than just the scarce resources we have in our schools to solve this problem — instead, we've got to pull together the abundance of resources in our entire community into a coordinated system that has real impact.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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