College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What We Know and What We Need to Know About High School Graduation and College Readiness Indicator Systems

By Urban Education Contributor — July 30, 2018 5 min read
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This week we are hearing from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium, @UChiConsortium). This post is by Elaine Allensworth (@E_Allensworth), Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, and Jenny Nagaoka (@JennyNagaoka), Deputy Director of the UChicago Consortium.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

As more districts set ambitious goals to increase their high school graduation rates and ensure that all students graduate ready for success in college, they increasingly rely on early warning or college readiness indicator systems to assess which students need supports and what school-level strategies to pursue. By organizing information on student performance into indicators using readily available data, indicator systems are a potentially powerful tool for guiding strategic action to improve student and school outcomes.

While the use of indicators has been widely embraced, it is not always clear how to use indicators in ways that will lead to better educational attainment. Decisions about which indicators are the best to use depend on how they are being used, and questions about how to use indicators depend on the choice of indicators.

What This Report Examines

In light of these questions, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research recently published a report, with support from the Gates’ Foundation, which examined the current state of indicator use for improving students’ educational attainment, considerations about which indicators to use when developing an indicator system, and some of the questions that administrators and researchers have asked as schools, districts, and states engage in these efforts.

Most of the examples of indicator use in the report come from our experiences working with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the University of Chicago Network for College Success (NCS). Chicago has been using early warning and college readiness indicator systems for about a decade and has seen considerable improvements in both high school graduation and college enrollment rates

What are the Key Questions

How are Indicators Used to Improve Students’ Educational Attainment?

Indicators are used to identify students in need of support; to systematically focus, guide, and assess school improvement; and to hold schools accountable for students’ outcomes. We can think of this function at different levels. First, indicators can help school staff tailor supports and interventions to specific student needs. They also send signals to students and families about how to reach goals and should empower them to take control of their education. At the school level, indicators can focus, guide, and assess school improvement efforts in a systematic way. They can also foster a collaborative school community and a context structured to help students. At the highest level, indicators can communicate district or state priorities to schools for supporting students and be used to hold schools accountable for student outcomes.

An example of a student-level indicator is a list of ninth-graders updated weekly, flagging students with low attendance or Ds/Fs in their classes—used to identify who needs intervention. A school setting-level indicator would be first quarter attendance rates by period and subject—used to identify patterns in absences in the school.

Which Indicators Should be the Focus of the System?

There is much to consider in choosing indicators. Good research evidence on what indicators are or are not predictive of the outcomes schools seek to change is essential. However, predictiveness alone is not enough to make an indicator useful. The best indicators are those which are highly predictive and also easy to understand and use in ways that are aligned with schools’ goals. When using indicators, practitioners need reliable information quickly in order to make real-time decisions. For example, if an indicator is only available once a year, it might be useful in planning but less effective for practitioners who need to make data-based decisions on a regular basis.

In addition to being predictive, understandable, and useful, indicators should also be used to develop school strategies with a direct causal linkage to outcomes. Indicators need to identify students for support, and also provide a focus for changes in school practice to support student outcomes. For example, Freshman OnTrack is often thought of as an early warning indicator. However, it is even more useful as a focus for school strategies because changes in practice that improve Freshman OnTrack rates also lead to increases in high school graduation rates.

For indicators to support student success, it is essential that they are both malleable and actionable. For example, 8th grade test scores may help identify students likely to struggle academically in 9th grade, but high school practitioners cannot use that information to support students. In contrast, freshman year course performance is something high school practitioners can address.

Implications For Research and Practice

Going forward, one of the most important tasks for the field will be to balance the promise of indicator systems as part of a comprehensive strategy for increasing educational attainment with some of the ongoing challenges and cautions of how indicator systems are designed and used. There is a growing evidence base around which indicators matter for attainment. However, a number of important challenges to effective indicator use remain, and the report describes in detail potential research areas on indicators and their use that we see as essential to improving the design and use of indicator systems. It is critical to recognize that these questions cannot be answered by research focused on one place. It will require learning across geographic contexts, across school and district conditions. And it will require researchers and practitioners learning from each other. Even with considerable work to be done, the gains to-date in districts across the country show that change is possible toward the important and ambitious goals of graduating all students ready for success in college and career.

Previous blog posts by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research:

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.