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Mining Data to Advance Equity


This blog is the first in the new series, Realizing ESSA’s Promise, which provides insight into ESSA’s impact on students and schools.

The drafters of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recognized that a quality education must be defined more broadly than just scores on standardized tests. In crafting the law, they sought to advance an expanded view of student and school success and to articulate the role of schools, districts, and states in achieving educational equity. ESSA is grounded in the belief that schools bear primary responsibility for preparing all students to succeed in college and career, including by expanding their educational opportunities. This, in turn, requires that districts and states create equitable educational indicators and systems of support that enable all students to access high-level learning experiences. This fall, we are beginning to see how states are taking steps to leverage ESSA to realize this equity promise.

The passage of ESSA marked an important shift away from test-based accountability that narrowed curricula and resulted in punitive action to address poor performance, like closing or reconstituting underperforming schools. Instead, ESSA broadens the notion of student and school success beyond standardized tests and recognizes the importance of schools providing critical supports for students. These supports include a strong curriculum, personalized learning plans, a safe and supportive environment, and equitable access to opportunities to gain the social-emotional skills that are foundational to both academic and life success.

ESSA is grounded in the belief that schools bear primary responsibility for preparing all students to succeed in college and career, including by expanding their educational opportunities.

In addition to requiring indicators of academic achievement, ESSA allows states to select indicators designed to measure whether students have equitable opportunities to learn. These measures also help districts identify areas in which additional investments are needed, such as ensuring access to a college- and career-ready curriculum and a positive and inclusive learning environment. ESSA also requires states to collect and report data related to students’ absence from school, including student suspension and expulsion rates and chronic absenteeism, and whether there are disparities based on students’ race, ethnicity, or family income level. This information paints a picture of student engagement in school and the classroom and provides insights into the areas in which schools need to dedicate time and resources to improve outcomes for students.

It’s obviously not enough to review the data; teachers, principals, counselors, school superintendents, and others need to examine the corresponding policies and practices and determine what needs to change, how they will intervene, and where additional investments should be made to support underserved students. Suspension, chronic absenteeism, extended-year graduation rates, and measures of school climate and college- and career readiness are all indicators states can track and monitor under the new law that can provide actionable information. The good news is that every state has committed in their accountability plans under ESSA to measure at least one of these high-leverage indicators. Several states are measuring more than one, and four states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, and Rhode Island) are using all of them.

A new interactive map from LPI shows the indicators that have been selected by each state and how they are being used. The map accompanies our new report that includes recommendations for addressing the areas in which data reveal disparities, highlights what some states are doing to close opportunity and achievement gaps, and provides resources to support school improvement.

The recommendations include such policy changes as:

  • Measuring suspensions as an incentive to replace zero-tolerance discipline policies with research-based policies and practices focused on improving students’ engagement, such as restorative justice practices.
  • Building a positive school climate, including giving special attention to the most vulnerable students and promoting social and emotional learning.
  • Creating early interventions to prevent chronic absenteeism and support attendance.
  • Implementing an extended-year graduation rate of 5–7 years, as well as the required 4-year rate, to encourage high schools to work with and bring back students who need extra time to graduate.
  • Assessing college- and career-ready indicators to encourage expanding access to a broad curriculum, so that students graduate with the ability to solve complex problems, communicate and collaborate with peers effectively, and be self-directed in their learning.

These are just some of the changes states, districts, and schools can make to ensure that all students are treated equitably and that every student has an equal chance to succeed. If we’re going to realize ESSA’s promise of equity, all states, districts, and schools will need to seize this opportunity to use data to better understand disparities and then implement research-based policies and practices to address identified needs. This focused work will be essential to creating inclusive and supportive schools organized to prepare every student with the knowledge and skills necessary for college, career, and civic life.