How are schools doing? Ask students

Posted: August 09, 2011

By Phil Buchanan and Fay Twersky

The cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools - and suggestions of others in Philadelphia and elsewhere - illustrate the peril of focusing on a single performance measure. School leaders and policymakers should see the need for a broader set of indicators of school quality.

Atlanta focused on testing so intently that the seating of principals at an annual meeting was based on school scores: The heads of high-scoring schools got prime seats, while laggards were forced to stand in the back. The message was clear: Deliver high test scores or be humiliated. So, as former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall collected national accolades and big performance bonuses, principals and teachers engaged in rampant cheating.

The lesson here is not that tests don't matter. They do and should. But they should not be the only measure of school quality - which they often are as a matter of federal policy.

The intent of those pushing for more accountability in education is good. But the students who were supposed to benefit are collateral damage in places like Atlanta, where teachers erased students' incorrect answers instead of taking on the much harder task of helping them learn.

Just as in business, where a focus on short-term stock prices and quarterly profits resulted in accounting scandals, overemphasizing test scores has led to cheating and disgrace. With so much on the line, people try to game the system.

One powerful way to reduce dishonesty is to create a well-rounded set of measures of school quality. A multifaceted approach renders gaming the system much more difficult.

So what other data should be tapped? Here's a radical and largely overlooked resource: students themselves. Students have a valuable perspective on their education, but remarkably little attention is paid to their opinions.

Four years ago, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Effective Philanthropy created YouthTruth, a survey that rigorously captures and compares confidential student perceptions of school experiences. We've learned that when you ask the right questions, and when administrators listen to students, student survey data can fuel dramatic change.

We have seen student survey data fuel dramatic change. One high school revamped its approach to grading and assignments in response to survey data suggesting students were not being sufficiently challenged. Another retooled its discipline philosophy and process. A third overhauled its college counseling program.

In addition to sparking important improvements, student survey data could help policymakers detect and deter cheating. A disconnect between survey results and test scores could be a kind of early warning system.

Students are just one source of potentially powerful data. Many districts survey parents but rarely pay attention to the results. Teachers are another key source of data on what's really happening in schools. They, too, should be surveyed regularly and confidentially.

Perceptual surveys have their limitations, of course, but offering students and others the opportunity to share their views would be a significant step in the right direction. Unless we ensure that schools and their leaders aren't judged by test results alone, we can expect more scandals.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Mass. Fay Twersky is senior adviser at the Yad Hanadiv Foundation in Jerusalem and a former director of impact planning and improvement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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