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Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: The Quest for Quality Measures

Last updated August 1, 2023

By Kelly Gregory

August 1, 2023

As we highlighted in our previous Making the Grade posts, the established correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) and academic performance has long created difficulties for those attempting to measure school quality—if a school serves a large number of students from low SES backgrounds, how can we fairly compare it to far better-resourced schools and parents? And knowing that these measures are imperfect, what are parents, policymakers, and schools supposed to do as they make decisions for their children, constituents, and teachers?

One thing is clear: if we are to fairly assess a school’s performance—and that of the students it serves —we must find measures that go beyond standardized test scores and that better account for the external factors of student socioeconomic status and access (or lack thereof) to opportunities that can affect academic outcomes.

According to Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Sean Reardon, creator of the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA), one way to do that may lie in focusing on learning rates rather than average test scores. According to Reardon, learning rates reveal academic growth of students (rather than reflecting their access to early childhood opportunities), and, as it turns out, low-income districts often outpace their more affluent counterparts on this measure.

While SEDA is a complex tool using a massive data set, more popular tools for rating school success are also adopting some of these additional measures to help account for or offset the opportunity bias that unequal socioeconomic status creates. For example, U.S. News and World Report school rankings measure Reading and Math Performance in relation to expected performance based on socioeconomic and other external factors that may influence test scores. And in 2022, South Carolina’s school report card ratings began incorporating teacher, parent, and student perceptions of school environment into the accountability ratings. Added Value Growth—a measure which will reward student growth that leads to grade level proficiency—is scheduled to be included in future South Carolina ratings, but will only capture growth over the span of a year (as compared to Reardon’s data set that covers an eight-year span).

Paying attention to these measures, more than just raw test scores and rankings, may help reframe how we judge the quality of a school. For parents who have choices about where to live and thus where to send their children to school, focusing on growth measures may change their selection and help prevent the perpetual concentration of wealth in schools. For policymakers and school administrators, being better able to tell which schools are performing in ways that work for the students—regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds—could allow for replicating those successes. On the other side of the coin, being able to better assess where schools are underperforming allows for intervention where it is needed, rather than writing off failures as the unfortunate but inevitable side effect of poverty.

But once specific disparities are identified, how might schools and communities begin to address them? And knowing, as we do, that access to opportunities outside of the immediate school context influence educational outcomes, how do we extend those quality supports to everyone? As we discussed in our last post, increased early education opportunities for our youngest students, as well as additional afterschool and summer learning opportunities for all ages, may contribute to a narrowing of the achievement gap. But what if the roots of some disparities require something more? In this case, a model known as “community schools” made hold the answer.

In our final post in this series, we will take a closer look at the community school model as we examine what it could mean for equity—both for students and the schools that serve them.

Read the next post in this series: Making the Grade: Strengthening Schools Through Community

Other posts in this series:

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: A Series on the Complexities of School Report Cards

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: The Socioeconomic Achievement Gap

Evidence Matters | Making the Grade: Can an Early Start Lead to a Better Finish?

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at