By Raifu Durodoye with Eric Toshalis
We are a society fixated on school quality: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the long list of organizations, companies and media outlets that publish school ratings. To the extent that this helps us determine how well schools are performing and which ones may need additional support, this is a good thing. But if you ask a handful of people how they think we should evaluate school quality you’re unlikely to find agreement. What should we include in school quality ratings? How should those things be measured? How can we compare schools to one another? Whose definition of “quality schools” should we trust?
The REMIQS project is one way of answering those questions and others. REMIQS (pronounced “RE-mix”) stands for Robust and Equitable Measures to Inspire Quality Schools. Instead of using accountability systems to punish underperforming schools, the project’s creators set out to use data and systems to find out where bright spots exist, to learn from those schools, and then share their effective strategies with the field.
The REMIQS research team has engaged several states from across the U.S., each representing different regions and populations, to collect Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) data. We merged and matched statewide longitudinal data with other data sources, such as common core and workforce commission data, to get a fuller picture of how schools impact students while they are in school and after graduation. In doing so, we’ve learned a lot about how states use data and ways to enhance our understanding of school quality.
Recommendations to states that want to use better data to positively impact students
Invest more in Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems to achieve equity
Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems were originally created to inform strategic decision-making, conduct meaningful research and monitor system effectiveness. However, the current level of investment in SLDSs has not enabled states to use the systems as expansively and effectively as originally desired. Though these data systems provide the only means to longitudinally track student outcomes from K-12, the data is often housed in siloed and disconnected systems that make it difficult to report on important measures in real time. In some cases, longitudinal data systems may not even include or link K-12, postsecondary and workforce data in the same system.
Policymakers and stakeholders would benefit more from SLDSs if the data housed there were integrated and systematically analyzed to support better decision-making. Failing to do so is a missed opportunity. We could learn a lot about how high school graduates fare in adulthood if we were able to match K-12 data to workforce participation, wage earnings, civic participation and health outcomes in a faster and more thoughtful way. Collecting data in this way is possible, but only if states put forth a concerted effort to integrate systems and support administration and data analysis. This requires an increased investment in statewide longitudinal data systems in states that do not currently have them.
The information from SLDSs could tell us significantly more about how schools prepare students to flourish, what schools need the most support, and our ability to redress opportunity gaps for students from historically marginalized and resilient backgrounds. Unfortunately, existing accountability systems do little to measure the intermediate- and long-term impact schools can have on students. They collect a moderate number of end-of-year high school measures but often lack the capacity to comprehensively track the college, career and civic outcomes that families, employers and policymakers care most about. This unnecessarily limits what we can see and what we can do, as well as the potential for policymakers to make data-informed decisions that can impact equitable outcomes for students. Without a higher level of commitment on the part of states to support data collection; analysis; and systems maintenance and alignment, many states will continue to struggle to produce the insights they need to reduce long-standing inequities in schools.
Use Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems to learn more about how to improve schools
The REMIQS project represents a step toward fully realizing the power of data to increase school quality for students who have been historically and systemically underserved. If we can identify those schools that add the most value and promote the highest levels of achievement, we can then observe and document what works best for our most vulnerable student populations. Through rigorous analyses and a more holistic set of school quality measures, the findings from the REMIQS project will provide some of the best available evidence for measuring school quality within states. By replicating all or part of the REMIQS approach, states can learn from and be inspired by high performing schools.
The bright spot approach – focusing first on high-performing schools – is less about holding low-performing schools accountable, and much more about asking better questions and leveraging data to locate and scale what works. The insights gained can be used to inform parents and communities, initiate effective school improvement efforts, and increase opportunities in schools where students tend to struggle. By measuring quality multiple ways and prioritizing the success of students from marginalized and resilient groups, states can strengthen accountability systems and improve school support and development processes.
Leverage Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems to address the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic
The pandemic laid bare many of the deficits that have historically plagued the educational system while fundamentally changing the way schools engage students. In order for states to competently adapt to these changes, there will invariably be an increased reliance on data. The insights that SLDSs can provide will be critical as institutions attempt to reverse learning loss and address increased need resulting from COVID-19 disruptions and closures.
To meet current data challenges we must move beyond a single-minded focus on test scores. The data collected from state systems have the potential to help us assess the full impact of the pandemic on a generation of learners, but to do that well we need to do things differently. Virtual engagement, student health and wellness, opportunities for acceleration and school-level spending are all pieces of information that are more salient now due to the crisis. Accordingly, states need to collect, interpret and act based on a broader range of data collected in their systems. To meet the unprecedented challenges of the COVID era, decision-makers across agencies need to fully leverage their data and the information it can provide. For states with and without SLDSs, the need to derive accurate and timely insights from data couldn’t be more pressing.
Partner with the research community to solve problems of practice
To fully leverage the information in SLDSs, states will need to increase their capacity. With their reporting, compliance and accounting responsibilities, they do not typically have the bandwidth to conduct all the analyses these systems can support. Researchers from universities, nonprofits, community organizations and regional educational laboratories can play a critical role in this work. Researchers possess the technical expertise to conduct important analyses that will help states solve problems.
Although research and data-sharing arrangements already exist in many states, they are not common enough to play a prominent role in addressing the day-to-day problems educators and families face. Moreover, there are simply too many barriers to researchers whose analyses would support better policymaking, school design, and systemic improvement supports. By creating consortiums around problems of practice and allowing external researchers to lead investigations, states can benefit from low-cost, high-quality analyses using longitudinal data. States can also develop research-practice partnerships to surface and answer important questions, create competitions to develop tools or work with the research community to build workforce pipelines. Such cooperation drives innovation and ultimately reduces costs once long-term outcomes are fully realized.
Redefining conversations about school quality to support students
With the REMIQS project, we are committed to working with districts, states and stakeholders who are deeply invested in initiating meaningful systems changes. State leaders, educators and the education research community are already united in their desire to improve conditions for students and achieve equity. To meet current challenges, it will take a collective effort on the part of the entire education community to use the data we already have in smarter, swifter and more integrated ways. The REMIQS project has been designed in part as an example of what’s possible. It’s up to the entire education community to turn that possibility into reality. We have a responsibility to students everywhere to shift the conversation around school quality to one that tells us more about the inner workings of schools, uplifts populations that have been historically marginalized and resilient and inspires all schools to strive for equitable outcomes.
Funding for the REMIQS project is provided by the Barr Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Shusterman Family Philanthropies, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Oak Foundation.