The New Data Era

Wednesday, August 16, 2023
Michael Deuser, Ed.L.D.

In public school districts across the country, the use of data is in transition—and more can be done to speed along this transition.

From my vantage point as a district administrator in Chicago Public Schools, the national interest in education data peaked in the late 2000s, along with an emphasis on standardized test scores and education accountability. Interest in all three had been building for years, with largely bipartisan support, since the passage of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Within a decade, that wave had crested and begun to recede, sweeping away along with it the foundations of a bipartisan consensus around “excellence” in education.

For better and for worse, today’s education landscape would look barely recognizable to someone who took a snapshot of it 15 years ago. Data use in public school districts is generally less common, and certainly less central, than it was 15 years ago. In particular, large swaths of public school educators, administrators, and advocates have repudiated the use of standardized test scores to assess (much less enhance) student learning, teacher effectiveness, or school quality. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many states were using newfound flexibility under 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act to move away from legacy accountability frameworks centered on test scores. The suspension of federal standardized testing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated and cemented this sea change.

In some ways, these changes are for the better. NCLB’s central premise—that 100% of students at all schools would test proficient by 2014, or else—demonstrably did not work. There is also no question that curricula narrowed during the NCLB era, as schools reduced time spent on subjects like science, social science, the arts, and physical education to make room for increased time on “tested subjects.”

However, if punitive test-based accountability is the bathwater, data is the baby. Student outcomes matter. They still matter, they matter more than ever, and they matter even if we do not track them. If we don’t, we lose the ability to set clear goals, to understand how students are progressing towards them, to provide responsive support and add resources where necessary, to concretely strategize and course correct, and—yes—to hold adults accountable for outcomes in appropriate ways. 

In today’s “post-accountability” era, most districts still recognize the benefits of data in the abstract—and certainly, there is no shortage of data dashboards, which have proliferated in the past decade. And yet, many districts are struggling to establish a new data paradigm that would enable them to fully capitalize on the promise of “multiple measures” to gauge and drive student success.

All that said, some districts are making progress with data. In their pursuit of equity and excellence, they’re rethinking which measures they use and how they use them. Leading districts are beginning with the end in mind, centering postsecondary success for all students as their “north star” and adopting the maxim that the most effective K-12 systems are those that best prepare students for success in life after high school graduation. Rather than narrowing their focus to test scores alone, these districts are identifying and prioritizing the metrics that are most predictive of students’ college and career success, and they are developing and resourcing strategies to improve these outcomes. 

The Momentum Metrics are ESG’s framework to help districts prioritize and pursue what matters most. It consists of eight measures aligned to a student’s journey from the beginning of high school through the first year of postsecondary education. These measures are organized in three phases directly aligned to postsecondary matriculation and success: Preparing, Applying, and Enrolling. The Preparing phase includes 9th Grade GPA, Potential for Advanced Coursework, and High-Quality Pathway Participation. The Applying phase includes College Application, FAFSA Completion, and College Match. The Enrolling phase includes Seamless Enrollment and Gateway Course Completion. 

Together, the Momentum Metrics are stepping stones toward the attainment of a postsecondary education credential, which in today’s job market is a ticket to financial security, independence, and freedom. Because these measures are so predictive of future success, districts that improve student outcomes according to them will—consequently—improve postsecondary outcomes like college graduation and future earnings. In this way, the Momentum Metrics empower educators to positively impact long-term student outcomes that they care about—and are sometimes held accountable for—but often feel unable to influence.

Three Tennessee districts in the Momentum Metrics Network—Clarksville-Montgomery, Hamilton County, and Metro Nashville—are starting to demonstrate what’s possible when postsecondary success and Momentum Metrics are at the center. Last year, Clarksville-Montgomery began deploying College and Career Readiness coordinators tasked with supporting FAFSA Completion, College Application, and Seamless Enrollment. This year, it has supplemented these roles with 9th Grade On Track coordinators at each school to create a strong bridge between high school entry and postsecondary enrollment. Hamilton County (where Chattanooga is located) has prioritized Potential for Advanced Coursework, in particular  building out new data systems and practices to increase equitable participation in early postsecondary opportunities (EPSOs) like AP, IB, and dual credit and enrollment, and to identify EPSOs with strong connections to college enrollment and persistence. Metro Nashville has adopted all of the Momentum Metrics as the backbone of a districtwide strategy for college and career readiness, and has developed a modular written curriculum for use during the summer to increase Seamless Enrollment.

Through our work with districts in Tennessee and across the nation, ESG has identified five lessons that districts should apply in their pursuit of postsecondary success for all students:

  1. Center postsecondary success for all students as the district’s north star and prioritize the Momentum Metrics as key measures of student success along the way.
  2. Design district-wide strategies and school-level action plans to improve overall student performance and reduce equity gaps according to the Momentum Metrics.
  3. Sufficiently and sustainably resource these strategies with the dollars, staff, time, and attention necessary to implement them effectively.
  4. Create new or enhance existing district data systems to accurately track the Momentum Metrics, in real time, down to the student level.
  5. Build systems—structures, routines, and human capacity—for data use and continuous improvement, with a primary focus on formative use and a secondary focus on summative use.

Postsecondary success for all students should be the ultimate goal for all public school districts as they reevaluate and recalibrate their core educational programs following the end of the COVID-19 emergency. To achieve that goal, districts should prioritize the Momentum Metrics in a way that both builds on the successes and learns from the failures of previous generations of data-driven education reform.