Special Report
Student Well-Being

Moving Beyond Just Academics in Assessing Effectiveness

By Evie Blad — December 30, 2015 10 min read

As discussions about school accountability begin to focus more intently on factors beyond standardized-test scores, educators and policymakers nationwide are closely watching a group of California school districts—collectively known as the CORE districts—as they rethink how they evaluate school effectiveness.

In 2013, six districts received the only local-level waiver from the U.S. Department of Education when it bypassed California’s state education department to excuse those school systems from some requirements of the outdated No Child Left Behind Act.

In return for the federal flexibility, the districts—including Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco, and Fresno, some of the state’s largest—agreed to create a first-of-its-kind local accountability system that relies on a broad range of indicators in addition to traditional test scores to monitor schools.

Those indicators include suspension rates; school-climate survey responses from parents; and measures of traits related to students’ social development and engagement, like self-management and social awareness.

That work foreshadowed an inclusion of nonacademic factors as a part of school accountability in the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was signed into law by President Barack Obama in December. Under ESSA, state accountability systems will be required to include at least one nonacademic indicator. The legislation lists educator engagement, student engagement, and school climate measures as examples, and it leaves the door open for others.

“We need to make sure that our schools’ quality is measured in a way that is much more reflective of the hard work that’s been done,” said Antwan Wilson, the superintendent of the Oakland district, which is also under the CORE waiver, along with Long Beach and Santa Ana. (Three other districts—Garden Grove, Sacramento, and Sanger Unified—are a part of CORE, but do not operate under the waiver.)

Broader Accountability

The accountability system, known as the school quality index, will be maintained by an organization that is governed by the districts’ leaders known as the California Office for Reforming Education, or CORE. (The Sacramento and Sanger Unified districts were originally approved to be a part of the waiver group, but later withdrew.)

Efforts to broaden accountability to include nonacademic factors come with some big questions.

At a time when some influential researchers have cautioned against using measures of noncognitive traits in school accountability, CORE officials are navigating uncharted territory in their ongoing work to determine what student traits should be used in their accountability system, how to measure those traits, and what to do with the results.

Their work could be informative to states as they seek to select what “other indicator” they will use to measure their schools as the federal government steps back from its previously prescriptive model for accountability and devolves more authority to the states in designing their systems.

The process of creating the CORE accountability system has also created excitement among education leaders who see it as a chance to move away from traditional accountability measures, which they say rely too heavily on standardized-test scores and tend to foster a culture of blame among educators rather than an atmosphere of support.

CORE pairs schools that fall to the bottom of the quality index and also rank lowest in academic achievement, known as priority schools, with demographically similar high-achieving schools. The aim is that principals and teachers trade techniques and strategies to improve.

The system also gives every school a “dashboard” of indicators it can monitor throughout the school year.

“The history of accountability systems has been about, ‘What is the thing I need to do to avoid the punishment?’ ” said Noah Bookman, CORE’s chief accountability officer. “We are trying to move the conversation to: ‘What am I learning? What strengths do I need to leverage? What are the challenges I need to address?’ and ‘What do I need to do that?’ ”

How It Works

Beachy Avenue Elementary teacher Cocoro Morimoto displays a card summarizing the Second Step program concepts that she uses with her 4th graders. She believes lessons from the social-emotional learning program have had a great impact on student success.

Key to the CORE districts’ waiver was a promise to reduce the number of students required for a school to be held accountable for a given subpopulation—students from racial- and ethnic-minority groups, English-language learners, low-income students, and special education students—from 100 to 20. That means schools with smaller numbers of students from those populations will be held accountable for their performance for the first time under the new index.

The school-quality-improvement index bases 60 percent of a school’s score on academic factors. Under that category, schools will be judged by their proficiency rates and growth in proficiency rates on the Smarter Balanced test, aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

That yardstick includes the scores of all students combined, as well as the scores of each subpopulation: English-language learners, low-income students, students with disabilities, and students in the lowest-performing racial or ethnic subpopulation at that school.

High schools’ academic-category scores will also include how their four-year, five-year, and six-year cohort graduation rates compare with those of other high schools in CORE districts.

And middle schools’ academic scores will include a “high school readiness” rate, which is the number of 8th graders who meet criteria researchers have linked to a higher likelihood of high school graduation: a GPA of 2.5 or better, an attendance rate of at least 96 percent, no Ds or Fs in English/language arts or math in 8th grade, and no suspensions.

The remaining 40 percent of a school’s score will be a combination of factors related to school climate and students’ noncognitive skills, such as self-management. Current school-level report cards crafted under the index include three factors in this category: rates of chronic absenteeism, suspension and expulsion rates, and the rate at which English-language learners are redesignated as fluent. Beginning in 2016, two other factors will be added to that nonacademic domain: measures of students’ noncognitive skills and the results of student, staff, and parent surveys about school climate and safety.

Social-Emotional Factors

After consulting a growing body of research that links such skills to a higher likelihood of college and career success, the CORE districts identified four student traits to measure and track: social awareness; self-management; self-efficacy, which is the level of confidence an individual has in his or her ability to succeed and to “control ... their own motivation, behavior, and environment;" and growth mindset, which is defined as an understanding that academic skill is not an inherent, fixed trait but one that can grow through effort.

The districts plan to assess those traits through surveys that ask students questions like how frequently they come to class prepared and how much they agree or disagree with statements such as: “Challenging myself won’t make me any smarter” and “I can earn an A in all of my classes.”

CORE districts piloted a longer menu of survey questions with 450,000 students. After refining that list, CORE will conduct surveys at every school this year.

Leaders of the districts say including such factors in the index will help track the effectiveness of social-emotional-learning programs and similar interventions already in place in many of their schools and help them call out good work that may previously have gone unrecognized.

Oakland, for example, is one of eight urban districts piloting a comprehensive social-emotional-learning program in consultation with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based organization that promotes research, policy, and practice related to such strategies. Other districts have made efforts on a school-by-school basis.

Among those schools is Beachy Avenue Elementary, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It uses the Second Step social-emotional-learning program to teach regular lessons in subjects such as empathy and anger management alongside its core subjects.

In one such lesson this fall, third-year teacher Cocoro Morimoto showed a video of two young boys describing their interactions at a sleepover—one had a great time, and the other lamented that his friend left his room a mess—and asked her 4th grade class to identify and relate to each boy’s perspective. In the future, she asked, how could the boys handle their interactions differently?

“Empathy!” several students yelled as they remembered the concept all at once.

Such lessons have a significant impact on student’s academic success, Morimoto said in an interview. Before she used the curriculum, she lost valuable instructional time addressing student conflicts that erupted during recess.

“I think they feel more empowered when they are solving problems on their own,” she said, adding that social confidence helps boost students’ confidence with challenging academic content. “I am giving them words for their feelings.”

Even without such measures, Beachy Principal Stephen Bluestein said he knows the social-emotional lessons are working. Since adopting the approach, the school’s office referrals have dropped and individual students’ academic performance has improved, he said, although the school still performs below district averages academically.

“It has indirect and direct positive effects that reflect in reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he said.

Researcher Cautions

But will the CORE districts’ noncognitive measures detect the changed attitudes of students?

Researchers of that topic have warned that those measures should not be used for school accountability because they are subject to biases and flawed responses. For example, in some schools in other states, students who’ve been taught about issues like self-control rate themselves lower than their peers because they have a greater awareness of what those concepts mean.

Currently, “perfectly unbiased, unfakeable, and error-free measures are an ideal, not a reality,” researchers Angela Duckworth and David Yeager said in a May essay published in Educational Researcher that detailed an array of flaws with current measures.

Influential Stanford University psychology Professor Carol Dweck, who popularized the idea of growth mindset, said she doesn’t support the inclusion of that measure in the CORE districts’ system.

“To use the mindset measures directly for accountability is, I think, asking for problems,” Dweck said. Such practices may lead to shallow interventions that don’t actually improve student learning, she said, and they could indirectly encourage teachers “to be teaching their students how to check off the right box on a questionnaire.”

“I’m deeply pleased that they value the hard work that we’ve done, but then, that said, I have these concerns,” Dweck said.

Researchers with Transforming Education, a Boston-based organization that consulted with CORE on its social-emotional measures, expressed some concerns about bias in student responses, Bookman, the CORE accountability chief, said. But preliminary results show that strong student scores in noncognitive areas correlate with stronger academic performance and observable traits, like regularly turning in homework on time, which lends validity to the results, he added.

Sara Bartolino Krachman, the executive director of Transforming Education, said the questions used on student surveys passed several levels of pilot tests without showing signs of the biases researchers expected.

And CORE Executive Director Rick Miller said traits like self-efficacy and growth mindset are far too important for student success to delay measuring them.

Some of the same researchers who’ve criticized gauging such traits for accountability are actively working to develop more consistent, reliable measurements. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Martin West, for example, is working in Boston-area charter schools to devise new tools to measure student traits. Miller said CORE is open to changing its measures over time as new, more-sophisticated tools are introduced.

And, as a new federal accountability law leads to the end of the district-level waiver, the CORE districts intend to continue developing their model for comparing schools, whether or not it is tied to high-stakes federal accountability, he said.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Student Health & Safety
In this Spotlight, assess what the data says and how educators can play a part in protecting their students, and more.
Student Well-Being Thousands of Kids Lost Parents to COVID-19. Schools Must Prepare to Help the Grieving
While some may view the back-to-school season as a return to “normal,” for those students who’ve lost someone, it will feel anything but.
9 min read
Vickie Quarles, a widow in Memphis, Tenn., lost her husband to COVID-19 in December 2020. She is now raising their five daughters alone. Her older daughter, Alyssa, 18, comforts her in their home.
Vickie Quarles, a widow in Memphis, Tenn., lost her husband to COVID-19 in December 2020. She is now raising their five daughters alone. Her oldest daughter, Alyssa, 18, comforts her in their home.
Karen Pulfer Focht for Education Week
Student Well-Being Nation's Pediatricians Call for All Students, Staff to Wear Masks in School
Countering recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the physicians say even vaccinated students should wear face coverings
5 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., on Aug. 24, 2020.
A sidewalk-chalk drawing reminds students to wear a mask as they arrive for the first day of school last August at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
Student Well-Being The Pandemic and Politics Made Life Especially Rough for LGBTQ Youth, Survey Finds
More than 80 percent of 13- to 24-year-olds who say they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning said 2020 was very hard.
2 min read
People wave pride flags and hold signs during a rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. Students and school district officials in Utah are outraged after a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week. A rally was held the following day in response to show support for the LGBTQ community.
People rally in support of LGBTQ students at Ridgeline High School on April 14, 2021, in Millville, Utah. The day before a high school student ripped down a pride flag to the cheers of other students during diversity week.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP