Diplomas are great. But does high school set the stage for success?

Why We Wrote This

Should more than graduation rates be considered when evaluating high schools? A few states are attempting to measure how well certain schools set up their students for college and workplace success.

Andree Kehn/Sun Journal/AP/File
Graduates march into the Leavitt Area High School graduation at the Colisee in Lewiston, Maine, June 9, 2019. A few states are looking beyond graduation rates to assess how much value high schools add, and to give credit to educators who are meeting the needs of students facing bigger barriers.

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High schools are often judged by how quickly they get students across the finish line. But a few states are starting to consider indicators beyond diplomas.

The goal is to assess high school quality more fairly, to see how much value schools add, and to give credit to educators who are meeting the needs of students who face bigger barriers.

Louisiana, for example, recently commissioned a set of “promotion power” measures to show how much each public high school contributes to boosting its students’ likelihood of college enrollment, college persistence, and greater earnings. It controls for background factors such as student poverty, so it can spotlight the schools that are propelling young people beyond statistical predictions.

Students at a high school near the top of the promotion power index are 13 percentage points more likely to go on to college than students at an average promotion power school. And by age 26, they earn nearly $6,000 more per year on average. 

“The magnitude of the differences was somewhat surprising,” says Matthew Johnson, an associate director at the research firm Mathematica who oversaw development of the measures. “It really does matter a lot what high school you attend for your longer-term outcomes.” 

The high school graduation rate has been rising for at least a decade. But the bar for preparing for the future has been rising alongside it – so what students do after they graduate is becoming ever more relevant to K-12 education leaders. A few states are leading the way in attempting to measure how well high schools set up their students for college and workplace success.

Louisiana, for example, recently commissioned a set of “promotion power” measures to show how much each public high school contributes to boosting its students’ likelihood of college enrollment, college persistence, and better earnings. It controls for background factors such as student poverty, so it can spotlight the schools that are propelling young people beyond statistical predictions.

Students at a high school near the top of the promotion power index are 13 percentage points more likely to go on to college than students at an average promotion power school. And by age 26, they earn nearly $6,000 more per year.

SOURCE: Mathematica
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Karen Norris/Staff

“The magnitude of the differences was somewhat surprising,” says Matthew Johnson, an associate director at the research firm Mathematica who oversaw development of the measures. “It really does matter a lot what high school you attend for your longer-term outcomes.”

The goal is to assess high school quality more fairly, to see how much value schools add, and to give credit to educators who are meeting the needs of students facing bigger barriers.

“A lot of schools serving disadvantaged kids are actually doing great things. These kinds of approaches can really highlight … strong outcomes that close equity gaps,” says Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

These measures also continue the trend away from the era of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which many educators criticized for relying too heavily on test scores. Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have more flexibility to look at an array of metrics to hold schools accountable for improvement.

The new approach isn’t necessarily expected to figure into formal accountability anytime soon, but “this kind of thinking is very much the model for the next few years … in states that are serious about reform,” Professor Polikoff says.

One example: Louisiana

Louisiana education leaders are already seeing some of their high schools differently in light of the promotion power measures.

For example, a high school rated “C” under the accountability system turned up in the 98th percentile statewide in terms of promoting student earnings at age 26.

“That school may not be traditionally noticed for positive work, but promotion power highlights that this high school may actually be significantly contributing to their students’ long-term outcomes,” writes Jessica Baghian, one of the state’s assistant superintendents, in an email to the Monitor.

In every promotion power category, some “C” high schools have risen to the top, she notes.

Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Virginia are also identifying “high-flyer” schools that achieve better outcomes for students from historically underserved groups. A recent Urban Institute report found that in Massachusetts and Virginia, several high schools boost students’ college enrollment rate more than 15 percentage points above what would be expected. All three states have schools whose tenth-grade test scores defy the norm.

The data also surface schools in vast need of improvement. While Massachusetts is often lauded for strong K-12 education, this scale shows that some of its high schools have graduation rates 20 percentage points below what’s expected.  

College persistence and earnings data that can be compared across states is somewhat limited. But more states could join in such efforts as they consider “the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they hope their education system is building in students – in a social-justice and equity frame in some places, but also an economic-development frame,” says Theresa Anderson, co-author of the Urban Institute report on the tri-state data and the Robust and Equitable Measures to Inspire Quality Schools (REMIQS).

An opportunity to delve deeper

Value-added measures sometimes raise concerns about setting lower goals for kids with more challenging backgrounds, which would be unfair to the students. On the other hand, Professor Polikoff says, it could be seen as unfair to educators to not consider students’ backgrounds. For state policymakers, “balancing that fairness is certainly appropriate,” he says.

With that balance in mind, Ms. Baghian writes, any promotion power model would “never entirely replace actual outcome measures, which set clear and high expectations for what educators should accomplish for every student. Instead, measures like this allow us to go deeper and learn more about what is or is not working to move the needle across our system.”

Both the REMIQS and the promotion power projects plan to look more closely at the top schools. “We can learn from them,” Ms. Baghian writes, “and potentially build those best practices into our school improvement models.”

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