We’ve Got to Look at More Than Just Test Scores When We Rate Schools

Op-Ed: UEI Director discusses the need to move beyond test scores in measuring school quality

By Sara Ray Stoelinga, Sara Liston Spurlark director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute. This article originally appeared in Education Post.

There is a window to reframe accountability as states can now think in new and flexible ways.

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has opened new conversations about what matters in education, placing considerable power in the hands of state and district education leaders to define school quality and student progress. ESSA requires states to develop accountability systems based on four indicators—standardized test results, English language-learner proficiency, graduation rates (or, for elementary and middle schools, another academic measure), plus one nonacademic measure that captures “school quality or student success.”

ESSA gives us the opportunity to move beyond the use of multiple-choice bubbles and standardized test scores alone.

There is a chance to deliver something teachers, parents, students, and the public have been clamoring for: a more nuanced conversation about student progress and school quality. This means a constructive form of accountability that measures the conditions that help children succeed, the non-academic factors essential to student growth, and the elements necessary to promote school-wide progress.

The opportunity also comes with a key challenge: How will we know if these emerging indicators are reliable, valid and actionable?


Fortunately, we can learn from real schools using effective indicators to drive school improvement. Cities and states at the vanguard of rethinking accountability and measuring nonacademic factors illuminate a productive and thoughtful path forward, drawing upon an impressive research base and proven results.

One source of research that illuminated the non-academic measures that matter most for school quality and student success began in Chicago in the late 1980s. It was a time when the decentralization of Chicago Public Schools opened the door to diverse approaches to governance and organization.

Some schools flourished under the local control approach and demonstrated dramatic improvement, while others—those that served the most disadvantaged students—stagnated. The Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute wanted to know why and, more precisely, under what conditions, schools improve.


Decades of rigorous research revealed five nonacademic factors predictive of school success: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, a supportive environment and ambitious instruction.

Researchers also found that schools strong on at least three of these five “essential supports” were 10 times more likely to show substantial gains in student learning than schools weak on three or more essential supports.

In collaboration with the Consortium, UChicago Impact, the Urban Education Institute’s innovation arm, developed the 5Essentials system, which is composed of surveys, reports, and training supports that states, districts, and schools can use to track progress on the nonacademic factors proven to drive school success.

The 5Essentials survey provides insights into how a school operates:

  • Are there effective leaders implementing a clear and strategic vision for school success?
  • Are there collaborative teachers, working together to improve the school and receiving strong professional development?
  • Are leaders, teachers, and staff building strong relationships with families and the community?
  • Is the environment supportive, safe, and orderly?
  • Does the instruction engage students and hold them to high expectations?

Having rigorous evidence to answer these questions can provide powerful insights, define targeted strategies for improvement, and drive systematic school improvement.

In a Near South Side elementary school in Chicago, in the 2012-13 5Essentials report, the school emerged as “weak” or “very weak” on 30 of the 35 school climate measures. The principal was stunned and disappointed. At the same time, the report gave him a roadmap toward improvement. He created teacher focus groups, changed his priorities for professional development, and took a more hands-on approach to building personal relationships with his teachers. The next year, the school improved on 26 of the measures.

Another principal at a middle school in Chicago’s western suburbs who saw lackluster performance on measures of trust made a concerted effort to change the culture and climate in her school, because, as she said, “If students know you care about them, it makes everything else a little easier.”

Similar stories abound. Over the past few years, nearly 6,000 schools across 14 states have used the 5Essentials survey to systematically measure nonacademic factors that decades of research have shown matter most for school improvement and student success.


The results have been promising: A study of statewide implementation of the 5Essentials across Illinois—a state that encompasses districts of diverse size and composition—found that strength on the five essential supports is positively related to higher test scores and larger gains over time in math and reading, positive changes in attendance rates, and improved graduation rates.

Rural and suburban, affluent and impoverished, high-achieving and struggling—regardless of context, schools need reliable data that guide and measure improvement. The essentials for school success—the indicators that truly “support a student’s opportunity to learn”— must sit side by side with academic indicators. It does not mean eliminating measurement of academic attainment and growth; it means coupling those with rigorous, reliable and valid indicators of school organization and other nonacademic factors. It’s clear from the experiences of Illinois and more than a dozen other states that such nonacademic indicators are key to moving the needle.

Regardless of which nonacademic factors states choose, ESSA’s framework for accountability provides an opportunity to embrace a broader definition of student and school success.

With willpower, commitment, and focus, we can design and implement effective systems that make accountability constructive—and even transformative. We owe it to schools, teachers, and students to ensure that we do.