Improving Meaningful High School Graduation: Getting Credible and Useful Information To Guide Our Efforts

Public educators spend their professional lives supporting student success.  Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in support of these educators’ efforts.  Students depend more than ever on their education to help them meet 21st century challenges and opportunities.  These bare bone facts demand that timely, meaningful and credible information be available to assess education quality.  The big data movement gives us ways to access, integrate, analyze and display massive amounts of information.  What education requires is a “right data” movement to ensure educators, policy makers and citizens get what they need to know to do their jobs as education stakeholders.  IRRE and others are trying to meet this challenge. 

Are the measures we use to assess education quality the right ones – are they good measures, do they matter to student and teacher success, and are they moveable by educators’ efforts?  

School systems, state departments of education and education advocates are often swamped with data but they still lack timely, credible and actionable information to guide important decisions.  Educators and policy makers do not need to know everything there is to know about what their students, educators and systems are doing.  What are the right measures to help us understand and improve education quality – at the student, school and system levels?

IRRE believes the key ingredients of education quality can be captured when we measure the five elements in the theory of change shown in Figure 1.  Each of these measures meets three standards: (1) they predict — either directly or indirectly — student success in school and beyond; (2) they show sensitivity to change initiatives at the individual, classroom and system levels; and (3) they are valid, reliable and can be efficiently collected, analyzed and reported.


Student Academic Outcomes:

Existing data, routinely collected, provide evidence to answer key questions about student performance: 

  • What percentage of students score at proficient levels or higher on state assessments at high school entry and at intervals throughout high school?
  • What percentage of students meet or exceed college-ready thresholds on ACT or SAT?
  • What percentage of students meet threshold levels of attendance, and successfully progress through required coursework (credit accrual and GPA)?

Students’ Learning Experiences:

 Students’ own experiences of instruction and school culture are important indicators of school quality and strong predictors of academic success. Their voices, accessed through surveys, address four questions:

  • Are students confident in their ability to do their schoolwork and are they engaged in that work?
  • Do students trust and respect their teachers and do their teachers know and respect them?
  • Do teachers have high and clear expectations for students’ work and are they committed to students’ success?
  • Do students feel physically and emotionally safe at school?

Effective Practices:

Effective classroom instruction is a necessary condition to ensure ­that all, not just some, students succeed.  Frequent classroom visits can be used to gather data about the quality of instruction and are a first step for providing feedback and supports to teachers.  A well-constructed classroom visit instrument enables educators to assess how many and which classrooms are actively engaging students in work aligned with state standards and expecting, inspecting and supporting all students toward mastery of that work.

Supports for Educators:

Just as students can share valuable information on surveys about their school experiences, teachers can help us learn about the supports they receive to do their work:

  • Instructional Improvement – Do teachers report their classrooms are visited regularly, and do they get timely and useful feedback?
  • Targeted academic supports – Do teachers report that students needing additional help get timely and effective supports?
  • Use of data – Are credible, timely and actionable data provided to teachers along with opportunities and supports to use those data to improve their practices and student success?

Conditions for Success:

Highly successful schools and districts are often characterized by effective systems and supportive cultures.  Again, the experiences of the educators within that system are invaluable for assessing these conditions:

  • Focus – Do educators see a clear focus on improving student success at the school and system levels?
  • Coherence – Is the improvement process clearly and effectively communicated to educators and other key constituencies?
  • Commitment – Are educators confident that system leaders will stay the course and provide resources sufficient to implement improvement efforts and see if they work?
  • Use of Data – Do educators believe key decisions are made with credible information?
  • Collective Responsibility –  Are educators and leaders held appropriately and collectively responsible for their practices and for student success?

IRRE is currently supporting schools, districts, policy makers and foundations to refocus their data portfolios on these issues.  Results from these metrics describe education quality against absolute standards – for what students are accomplishing and experiencing, for educators’ practices and the supports they receive to improve them, and for how systems should function to support the educators and students in their work.  These results can help all of these stakeholders identify areas of absolute strength and weakness; prioritize investments of resources (human, economic and political); and track progress toward clear standards of quality.