New Report Emphasizes Accountability from Secondary Schools

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

In order to bring about greater postsecondary opportunities and success for students from families of lesser economic means, more time and money should be directed toward high-achieving students who attend high-poverty schools.

That is one of the key points made in a new report titled “A Level Playing Field: How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game.”

“These high-performing kids, particularly in high-poverty settings, are a really important group for us to take care of,” said John Cronin, director of the Kingsbury Center at the Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA, the organization that produced the report. “And schools should start thinking about this group as a group they need to attend to.”

Cronin said current legislation, particularly No Child Left Behind—the George W. Bush administration’s signature education initiative that called for all students to be proficient in reading in math by 2014 and which many states have obtained waivers for under the current administration—“doesn’t incentivize schools to focus energy and resources on this group.”

The new NWEA report calls for rethinking the way schools are held accountable for student achievement by focusing more on growth as opposed to the conventional benchmarks of proficiency and college and career readiness.

When proficiency is the focus, Cronin lamented, most of the attention and resources go to “bubble students,” or those who are on the verge of proficiency, at the expense of those who are significantly below or above proficiency.

The report also calls for making high-achieving students a subgroup for accountability purposes.

“If we identify those kids as a group for which schools need to be accountable, schools will find resources that are necessary to help those kids,” Cronin said. “It’s not necessarily about more resources, but getting the resources focused on this particular area of need.”

For the report, the Kingsbury researchers—Michael Dahlin and Beth Tarasawa—examined the academic growth of 35,000 elementary and middle school students in 31 states, all
of them high achievers at their respective schools, over a period of three years.

While most high achievers were on track to be college ready, the researchers found “significant achievement gaps” between students in poor schools and those in wealthy schools. Specifically, the report states, 95 percent of the high achievers attending wealthy schools were on track to meet ACT college readiness benchmarks, versus 85 percent of high achievers from poor schools.

To eliminate those gaps, the report states, high-poverty schools should offer their high achievers accelerated and advanced programs that are “standard fare in wealthier schools.”

“Because many students in high-poverty schools come from families without college experience, schools may need to move beyond basics,” the report states, adding that schools should address other things, such as time management, persistence, college costs and admission procedures.

Academic growth is critical for high-achieving students, Cronin said, because their class standing comes into play when it comes to being admitted to competitive colleges and becoming eligible for scholarships and merit aid.

He said that, if the report’s recommendations were implemented, “We would see more kids who are on track for college actually completing and more kids who may have been on track to attend a state college, particularly students from high-poverty schools, getting scholarship aid for more selective colleges.”

Daria Hall, director of K-12 Policy at The Education Trust, a national education think tank that advocates for closing of achievement gaps, gave the NWEA report a mixed review.

Hall said the report drives home the importance of looking at achievement and achievement gaps across the spectrum.

“We know that those gaps exist, they are pernicious and pervasive, and we need to do all that we can to ensure that low-income kids of color are getting to the very highest level of achievement,” Hall said.

Hall said what she found hopeful about the report is that it found that a significant portion of high-poverty schools were making enough growth to close the achievement gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools. Specifically, the report found that the top quartile of high-poverty elementary schools “produced growth rates that entirely erased and surpassed the achievement gap relative to the wealthiest schools with the lowest growth rates.”

“This same pattern was true for middle schools as well,” the report states.

“That tells us that growth is possible, even in our most challenged schools.” Hall said. “What’s essential to do is identify these high-poverty schools that get the highest level of growth with top performers and all kids, study what they’re doing and then figure out what other schools can be doing to really learn from and replicate their success.”

Hall took exception, however, with the report’s recommendation to focus on growth over proficiency and college and career readiness and its call for more resources to top-performing students.

“It’s not just enough to say we need to drive more resources to our top performers,” Hall said. “It’s about figuring out where students are most in need, how do you drive resources to their school and ensure that all students in high-poverty schools get the resources and opportunities that they need.”

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