Many policymakers are thinking about different ways to measure and use student learning outcomes. In this post, I’ll zoom in on how the Department of Education is thinking about learning outcomes in its new Race to the Top competition, which asks school districts to look at outcomes in three ways: using student performance measures, tracking student growth and capturing student performance data. Out of a total 210 points possible in the application, two of these areas aren't worth a significant amount of points individually -- 5 points for the performance measures and 15 points for the section that asks districts to capture performance data. But student growth is an eligibility requirement, meaning that districts will be disqualified if they don't include it. And figuring out how to best measure learning outcomes is something nearly all states and districts are grappling with right now. (See other Early Ed Watch posts for more on the applicants and for more about opportunities for district leaders to include the PreK-3rd approach in their applications.)
In an earlier Early Ed Watch post, my colleague Lisa Guernsey writes about how the district-level Race to the Top application requires school district officials to craft performance measures for the grade levels they plan to target. For applicants that choose the PreK-3rd grades, they must “propose at least one age-appropriate measure of students’ academic growth” and one age-appropriate “non-cognitive” indicator for health or social-emotional well-being.” Documenting performance measures isn’t a new addition to grant applications, but, as Guernsey says in her post, “This may be the first time the department has documented different ways to measure outcomes for different age groups.” School districts will use the student performance measures to guide the implementation of the plan they put forth in the Race to the Top application. District officials must identify their goals for students in each year of the grant and explain the indicators they will use to determine if the district’s plan is succeeding and make changes as needed.
As an eligibility requirement, districts must also include measures of “student growth” as a component of their teacher-evaluation systems. Districts don’t have to explain what the system will look like or what the measures will be. They must only certify they will implement one no later than the 2014-15 school year. Per the application, student growth is defined as the change in student achievement between two or more points in time. For fourth grade, for example, growth could be measured by a student’s test scores on the third grade state standardized test in math compared to those on the fourth grade state standardized test in math. The application also suggests that districts incorporate other measures of student learning in tandem with test scores. There are no state standardized tests required by No Child Left Behind for grades K-2, where measuring “student growth” gets trickier. Districts in states that won Race to the Top grants in previous rounds will have a foundation to build upon, since their states were required to develop and implement evaluation systems too and are likely farther ahead.
The application also makes a third mention of how the department is thinking about student learning outcomes; this time as student performance data. These data are to include information about students’ academic progress based on things like formative and summative assessment data, instructor observations, and reports on completion of coursework. Districts are expected to share the information with students, parents, teachers, principals and other necessary school staff to help improve students’ and parents’ participation, guide instruction and help connect students to services they may need, such as tutoring.
These are important components of the competition, because teachers and parents should have this kind of information early and ongoing throughout children’s schooling. In fact, school districts should start by collecting information on the type of pre-K experiences children have before they enter kindergarten.
While these multiple ways of looking at and measuring student learning outcomes might yield better information on students, it could be a heavy lift for a lot of districts right now. Districts have a lot to consider: everything the Race to the Top competition requires, their state’s own Race to the Top and/or No Child Left Behind waiver expectations, plus their own local financial challenges. Is the money -- $5 million to $40 million depending on the size of the district or districts – worth it? At least 900 school districts said yes when they submitted their intent to apply earlier this month. (Only the lead applicant was named on the intent to apply so many more districts may plan to participate as part of a consortium.)
In addition to asking districts to think more deeply about measuring student learning, the department also encourages districts to think about how to address the out-of-school factors that may negatively affect student learning. The competition’s competitive priority, “Results, Resource Alignment, and integrated Services,” asks districts to integrate public or private resources to provide student and family supports that address the social, emotional or behavioral needs of students. For instance, these could include health programs, after-school programs and early learning programs. School districts that choose to apply with this competitive priority can earn an additional 10 points. Given the large number of competitor – nearly 900 applicants have said they intend to participate -- winning and not winning could come down to just a point or two. Getting these extra credit points could make a huge difference.
Applications aren’t due until October 30. As districts get further into the planning and development of their proposals, they could still opt to sit this one out. But we hope that’s not the case. This Race to the Top competition has the potential of helping districts to focus more deeply on how to meet individual students’ learning needs, how to provide teachers and principals with the tools and training they need to tailor their instruction, and how to best measure student progress and teacher effectiveness.