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Mind the Gap: The Case for Re-Imagining the Way States Judge High School Quality

Chad Aldeman
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The American education system is in the midst of a strange paradox. Reading and math achievement levels are increasing for 4th- and 8th-graders, but they’ve barely budged for high school students. High school graduation rates are at all-time highs, and more students are going to and persisting in college, but college dropouts are now a bigger problem than high school dropouts. Meanwhile, overall educational attainment levels in the U.S. have slowed considerably, and we’re now 14th on a measure in which we used to lead the world.

In Mind the Gap: The Case for Re-Imagining the Way States Judge High School Quality, Chad Aldeman argues that new, more multidimensional ways of judging high school quality are essential to break out of this paradox. Current state and federal policies on high schools tend to reward schools that perform well on measures like test scores and graduation rates while forcing changes on those that don’t. Instead of focusing on higher-order skills, challenging coursework, and annual progress toward college and career readiness, schools are encouraged to focus on lower-level skills and to push all students through to a diploma, regardless of what they learn. But while the focus on low-level academic skills and high school graduation rates has proved useful in some ways, it won’t be sufficient to drive dramatic improvements going forward.

Using data from Tennessee, the report shows that these commonly used measures of high school performance—achievement scores and graduation rates—paint an incomplete picture of success, one that can reflect the school’s demographics rather than its success in educating students and preparing them for the future. If state and federal policymakers place a value on how many students go to college or how prepared students are to enter the workforce, they aren’t fully capturing those goals with existing accountability measures.

Fortunately, the conditions are now in place for a much richer definition of what it means to be a successful high school. With the expansion of educational data sources, a critical mass of new information about school quality now exists and is waiting to be put to good use. There is now enough information to create low-cost but sophisticated portraits of high school quality that include measures of student engagement, challenging coursework, and success in transitioning to college or a career.

Read the full report for Aldeman’s recommendations on how to get there.