AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Why We Need Leading Indicators for Education
Improving student outcomes and closing achievement gaps takes time — more time than is often allowed in typical big-city political environments. Education leaders and community members need a way to monitor how much — if any — progress is being made in their schools and school systems before the results show up in indicators like student test scores, when it is often too late to intervene effectively.
Education leaders, especially in the district central office, need to be looking at leading indicators that signal early progress toward academic achievement. Using leading indicators, which builds on existing data systems, allows districts to make strategic decisions about supporting student learning instead of putting out fires.
Limitations of Current Data
The emphasis on data and data-informed decision-making in education has grown exponentially over the last decade. With the standards movement and No Child Left Behind, educators are paying more attention to monitoring the achievement of traditionally under-served subgroups of students. Instruction has come under new scrutiny, along with an increased interest in developing ways to improve it.
So why has closing achievement gaps proven to be so elusive? The problem is not that educators lack data; for decades, they have collected hundreds of different indicators on teachers, schools, and, especially, students. And advances in technology have made it easier than ever to amass and access vast quantities of data.
There are, however, problems with the kind of data collected and the way the data are used.
Test scores and many of the other data currently collected often come too late. They measure failure after the fact, rather than informing action and intervention that could have prevented failure.
Most data also tend to focus on too narrow a range of outcomes, mainly negative ones. With new federal standards and career requirements, the level of knowledge needed to complete high school is no longer sufficient. We need new indicators that monitor college readiness — both mastery of rigorous coursework and development of “soft skills” — diligence, engagement, tenacity, and motivation. We also need data that identify and act on students’ untapped potential rather than simply punishing low performance and negative behavior. Many urban students miss out on the more challenging coursework that would lead not only to high school graduation, but also to college enrollment and completion.
Perhaps most worrisome, data and the accompanying interventions are often focused on individual students when the problem is systemic. What would the intervention be if large proportions of children in a school or district are shown to be behind in reading? Such interventions are harder to target and involve raising teaching quality schoolwide or districtwide — a huge challenge. Educators need more data to help predict and improve future outcomes at a systemic level.
What the Research Shows
The Annenberg Institute, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, conducted a study to identify key indicators that forecast academic improvement. The report Beyond Test Scores: Leading Indicators for Education, published in 2008, identified nine of the most powerful leading indicators used by four districts considered to be in the vanguard of data-informed decision making: Hamilton County (TN), Montgomery County (MD), Naperville (IL), and Philadelphia (PA).
Our recently released Leading Indicator Spotlight series of research briefs is designed to accompany Beyond Test Scores. We highlight three key areas — early reading proficiency, algebra enrollment, and college and pre-college admission test scores — that the study districts are using to assess their students and then connect them to critical supports.
These three areas have a large impact on students’ academic future. Students who fall behind at certain critical stages will have an increasingly hard time catching up in later years. Monitoring early childhood reading proficiency allows support for struggling readers while there is still time — research shows that long-term reading skill is largely determined by third grade. Algebra enrollment and achievement is the gateway to higher-level high school math and science courses, which, in turn, form the foundation for success in college-level work. And using college admissions tests for placement in AP and other advanced high school classes would benefit the large number of students who are capable of more rigorous coursework but who do not have access to it in their schools.
Looking toward the Future
We are living in a critical period for public education in which new policies, practices, investment, and theories of action abound. Policy-makers must often act on good, new ideas before they have had a chance to accumulate much supporting evidence. But it would be a perilous mistake to over rely on lagging indicators such as standardized test scores, only to find after it is too late that we have failed yet another generation of urban students.
In the more traditional use of leading indicators, national economists and policy-makers keep a close watch on economic leading indicators. They make midcourse corrections depending on whether the policies being enacted now are showing signs of setting the economy on the right track or pushing it deeper into crisis. As thoughtful and committed educators, we should do no less for our children’s future.
Associate Director, District Redesign and Leadership
Assistant Clinical Professor, Master’s in Urban Education Policy Program, Brown University
Staff Editor/Research Analyst, Annenberg Institute for School Reform