05/09/2016 12:48 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2017

Measuring School Quality: Non-Academic
Measures in the Every Student Succeeds
By Martin J. Blank

Martin J. Blank, President, Institute for Educational Leadership and Director,
Coalition for Community Schools

The education community is facing a tough question: How do we measure
school quality in their accountability systems, as mandated in the Every
Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? In everyday nomenclature, the law expects
schools to be measured by at least one “non-academic” indicator such as
student engagement, educator engagement, school climate and safety,
chronic absence, and social and emotional learning, among others. As states
work through the process of deciding which indicator(s) to use, it’s important
to keep in mind several factors.

First, there is continuing debate about testing for non-academic indicators like
social and emotional learning, grit, or even whether students have a growth
mindset. While research is showing that each of these skills are important to
young people’s learning and development, and indeed their ability to compete
in the 21st century marketplace, that does not mean they should be tested. As
some have suggested, not everything that matters can or should be tested.

There are two reasons to reject student-level testing in these areas. First,
experts (Carole Dweck and Angela Duckworth) argue that the field is not
sufficiently developed to have tests that researchers consider valid and
reliable as mandated by the law. More research and development on these
non-academic indicators is necessary before these measures should be
considered for placement within an accountability system.

Secondly, ESSA maintains the testing requirement for academic achievement
that was included in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). We don’t need to be testing
young people for anything else. We know that the testing mandate under
NCLB led to numerous unintended consequences including a narrower
curriculum, conflicts among teachers, school systems and states, as well as a
public movement to opt out of testing, which reduces broad support for public
education. Adding another test is not the answer.

What non-academic measures then might work to assess school quality? It’s
important to start by thinking about what we’re trying to accomplish with these
new accountability indicators.

From my perspective, we are not just identifying measures to help decide
which school is among the 5% in need of improvement or is poorly serving
particular subgroups of young people. What we should be seeking are
measures that help us more fully understand the forces that are influencing
student learning and development. That approach can lead to what ESSA
describes as locally crafted “comprehensive support and improvement
strategies” for low performing schools and students, rather than the top-down
turnaround schemes of No Child Left Behind.

Experience tells us that a variety of factors noted in ESSA influence student
learning and development — health and safety, bullying, adverse punishment
and inappropriate discipline, chronic absence, and school climate and safety,
to name a few. These non-academic factors not only hurt individual students,
but can drive the culture of the schools where our children are learning. If
states choose the right kind of non-academic indicators, they will be
encouraging educators to explore with families and their broader community
how to address the challenges implicit in these measures and build
sustainable improvement efforts.

Let’s look at chronic absence and school climate as two strong examples of
non-academic indicators. Chronic absence is defined by Attendance Works as
“missing 10% of the days of the school year whether those days were
excused or unexcused.” This indicator asks us to look at why particular
schools have high chronic absence and opens the door to deeper
conversations about the circumstances in our children’s lives that influence
their educational success. The importance of being present to succeed in
school also is undeniable.

Here is a simple example. In a recent leadership program run by the Institute
for Educational Leadership, chronic absence was up for discussion. One
principal, when faced with this challenge, merely suggested that the problems
were with students’ families. A second principal went out in the community to
investigate and found that the chronically absent children were living in
migrant worker camps. Their parents were leaving home early in the morning
to carve out a meager living, and no one was home to help get the kids to
school. Now that principal had the story behind the data and could respond
more effectively to address the underlying issues beyond the data.
Other factors such as health or mental health issues, family economic
circumstances, family housing conditions, and an unresponsive school
environment are all contributors to this chronic attendance problem.

School climate is another area for consideration as a non-academic
indicator. The National School Climate Center says that:

“A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and
learning...This climate includes: norms, values and expectations that support
people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe; people are engaged
and respected...educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the
benefits and satisfaction gained from learning; and each person contributes to
the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.”

A positive school climate is what many people say they “feel” when they walk
in the school door.

There are a series of validated surveys on the U.S. Department of Education
website that can be used with young people, parents, and educators to
measure school climate. And there is now research that demonstrates the link
between climate and student achievement.

Whether states select chronic absence, school climate, or other measures as
non-academic indicators, the Coalition for Community Schools encourages
state and local education agencies to use Results-Based Accountability (RBA)
to plan for how they will “turn the curve” on a particular measure. RBA asks
users to identify important performance measures, find out the story behind
the data - what are the specific causes, who are the partners that can help
improve performance measures, what evidence do we have of what works -
and then develop a strategy and an action plan. It’s a relatively simple process
that is being used around the world and in some school districts. RBA focuses
on what matters most, which is the improved results we are seeking, and
moves toward a model of shared accountability.

In today’s education reform world some argue that “we only manage what we
measure.” If that’s right then we better measure the right thing. That’s why the
process of selecting non-academic indicators that matter to students’ lives is
so important. Equally important is having the best tools at the systems and
school levels to implement an effective planning process that leads to better
performance. Both are critical to the education of our most vulnerable young