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Lesson 9.1

Measures of Success:
For Kids and For Schools

Report cards aren’t enough, because…

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Nearly all parents express confidence that their children will succeed in school and graduate from college one day.

As children begin preschool or kindergarten, this faith is uplifting and right. Every child can succeed in school with effort and support. As children advance through school, however, some of that confidence amounts to wishful thinking. How do we know if our kids are actually succeeding?

We're On Track, right?

Students and their parents really want to believe that school is going to work out OK. Teachers and administrators really want to believe that their schools can give kids the education they need, too. But education is cumulative. When a student comes to a class seriously behind, there is only so much any one teacher can do!

Schools are complex organizations. As students move from grade to grade, weaknesses in the system pile up. Distractions steal a little time here and a little there. It's easy for the definition of "good work" to vary from one class to the next. Students that fall behind often do so gradually, unnoticed, making grades that don't ring alarm bells. If parents complain, it's natural for teachers and administrators to reassure them.

How does a school system honestly determine whether weaknesses are piling up and ensure that students do well academically? And how can parents tell if their kids aren’t doing well?

Three layers of success: the student, the school, and the system

How is Student Success Measured?

California's grade-level educational standards, based on the Common Core, are more than lists of facts to be memorized and regurgitated. They describe what students need to know and be able to do at each grade level in order for college to be a workable option for them.

Three sources of information can tell you whether your child is on track: Teacher conferences, report cards, and standardized tests.

Standardized tests are the system's most objective feedback for parents. Don't ignore them.

Teacher conferences can give you useful insight into how your child behaves at school, and how he or she approaches academic work. Teachers can also help you get a feel for what students are learning in class and how you might be able to help your child succeed. But teachers aren't always candid in their feedback. It can be easy to hear what you want to hear. (For more about parent-teacher conferences, read Lesson 2.4.)

Report cards usually include evaluative feedback from teachers along with a grade, focusing on academic achievement. This feedback might also include information about growth, participation, and/or classroom citizenship. If your student's report card is just a grade, without additional information, ask why. (More on report cards in Lesson 9.2)

Standardized tests provide the most objective feedback you will get about your child's academic progress. Each year, students in California take the CAASPP tests (also known as the "Smarter Balanced" tests). These tests are an antidote to wishful thinking. They evaluate students based on their demonstrated knowledge and skills, coldly benchmarked against grade level expectations. Yes, grades are a more comprehensive evaluation of a student's performance, but they can be subjective. A grade of B in one teacher’s class is not the same as a B in the classroom next door, much less in a different school in a different community. Standardized tests aren't perfect, but they have meaning and they matter.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted testing across the nation, leading states to skip a year of test administration. In 2021, California officials wrestled to find ways of testing students safely, while keeping an eye on federal law.

If your son or daughter shows a pattern of low scores on the CAASPP tests, hear the alarm bell. Don't ignore it. Don't let yourself be easily reassured. Few students make it to and through college with a pattern of low standardized test scores, even if their grades are OK. Talk to a counselor. Figure out what's standing in the way and do something about it.

How is School Success Measured?

The success of a school is a reflection of the success of its students, both in the short-term and the long term. Successful schools should advance or accelerate the academic achievement of each student, with particular focus on ensuring that specific groups of students are not falling behind.

America's major national education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), requires that states evaluate the success of individual schools using indicators such as academic achievement and progress, English language proficiency, and high school graduation rates. Additionally, this evaluation must identify at least the 5% of schools that are farthest behind, either in total performance or in the performance of groups of students. It also requires that the state have a plan to improve these schools.

How is Success for School Systems Measured?

Unlike federal law, which is focused on the success of individual schools, California state law focuses on the success of school districts, which oversee schools and school budgets. In 2017, the state introduced the California School Dashboard, which evaluates the success of its ~10,000 schools and ~1,000 school districts. School system success is measured based on short-term metrics like attendance and test scores, but also long-term ones like graduation rates, college readiness and rates of school suspension. When schools are doing poorly on these measures, the state provides additional support through school districts, perhaps with help from the county office of education.

But let's take it a step at a time. The next lesson focuses on the success of students.

Extensively updated September 2017
Updated December 2017
Updated March 2019
Updated December 2020, February 2021.


Which ONE of the following MOST ACCURATELY indicates a student’s academic preparedness for college?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 7:19 pm

BOULDER, CO (April 13, 2023)—School ratings are a ubiquitous feature of the U.S. educational system. Following the federal requirements for states to report school performance with a standardized measure of accountability, non-state organizations such as and Niche have drawn on states’ publicly available information to create their own consumer-oriented rating systems.
NEPC today released a policy brief, Consumer-Oriented School Rating Systems and Their Implications for Educational Equity, in which author Jeanne M. Powers of Arizona State University examines these consumer-oriented rating systems, their cultural effects, how they work in practice, and their implications for educational equity.
user avatar
Anna Meza August 1, 2021 at 2:28 pm
As a parent, I found the information is this lesson extremely helpful for evaluating the cumulative college readiness of children.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 3, 2021 at 11:50 am
As of this writing (May 2021) it seems likely that California will (at last) adopt a statistically meaningful way of measuring success at the school level based on the learning progress that individual students make from one year to the next.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 4, 2019 at 9:12 pm
I see that several comments have been thinking as I have. Many people test well on standardized tests and are not necessarily good students. Others test poorly and are simply not good at standardized tests. Unless the standardized tests include essays and alternate methods of solving problems, they will never teach students’ true, unique intelligence.
user avatar
Denise Dafflon July 30, 2019 at 12:31 am
I answered the question as stated, Multiple standardized tests give an indicator for a child being "on track" for college. But then, as the video stated 1) standardized tests does not mean success in college (grades are better indicators as they tend to assess "consistency of learning-work habits,.."... 2) standardized tests and good grades does not mean success in a career (need internal motivation, risk-taking, creativity, that is NOT assessed by standardized tests and grades. I agree that outcomes and accountability in education is complex. It reflects what a society (culture) values and how it measures the success of its individuals and its system (e.g. economic-materialistic growth, personally fulfilling life, individual or community success, strong democracy with an informed and active citizenry, etc.).
user avatar
Arianna Stamness February 22, 2018 at 8:31 am
Kids shouldn’t be judged on if they will get into college by their scores on a standardized test. Colleges should look at other things.
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek June 20, 2019 at 7:54 am
I do think colleges look at other things. I'm not sure how much weight the standardize test are in this process though.
user avatar
Alan Ham July 23, 2020 at 10:27 am
I'm pretty sure colleges look only at your essay, high school resume, transcript, test scores, and I think that's it.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 26, 2020 at 2:20 pm
Alan - Selective colleges can look at all kinds of things to make their decisions. The factors can be surprising. Do they need a tuba player? Did they just hire a new professor to teach Arabic? For highly selective colleges, one of the key factors admissions officers care about is "yield" which means they try to predict whether you will accept if offered admission. Colleges care whether you open email from them... Read this post for more:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm
The New York Times asks: How Effective Is Your School District?
A New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the Most

This is an important resource from Stanford that shows growth in learning overtime. Some kids only learn about 4 years worth of knowledge in 5 years and some kids learn 6 years worth of knowledge in 5 years. What school districts shine? Chicago, for one! In California, standouts include Garden Grow, Fremont, Capistrano, and Chula Vista. You can check your district onlilne
user avatar
Gloria Lucioni January 6, 2019 at 9:20 pm
Most UC schools look at grades more than test scores for admissions and scholarships. Grades over four years are often better than test scores as indicators of good study habits, self-discipline and achievement. Tests matter, but I think grades are more relevant as kids mature and age. On the other hand, some kids do well on tests but have poor attendance or study habits.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 9, 2017 at 1:53 pm
Data systems for education try to provide transparency, but ALL data need to be handled with inquisitiveness. Sometimes even good news can masquerade as bad news. Here's a good example:
user avatar
Denise Dafflon July 30, 2019 at 12:02 am
Thanks for this link, very helpful article and article in their comment section
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 30, 2016 at 11:23 pm
Measuring success in a complex endeavor like education is not easy. Donald Campbell, an American social psychologist, studied the ways that systems respond to measurement. Campbell is particularly noted for his insights about unintended responses, such as cheating or hyperfocus on narrow definitions of success. (The tendency for evaluation to influence unintended consequences is sometimes called "Campbell's Law.) Campbell was not an opponent of measurement, but an advocate for good program design. For example, he advocated for the use of multiple measures of success and for varying the evaluation methodology.
user avatar
sherryeschnell May 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm
I would like to know how many students graduate from my neighborhood school with A's and B's, get accepted into a good college and then have to take remedial classes. That would be a good indicator of a quality or non-quality neighborhood school.
user avatar
Steven N December 8, 2017 at 9:21 am
sherry - I think unfortunately this data, in the shape you suggested, cannot be reasonably be collected. In CA a reasonable measure might be "How Many remedial programs do the colleges require of graduating students from each HS?" But, since there is now a rethinking of entrance competency tests & dumbbell English (at CSUs) we probably need another way to measure. SAT and/or ACT basic standardized tests? Would work for 4 yr college bounded seniors. But what for the majority of 2 yr college or no collage bound? Does anyone know where to access ACT/SAT summaries for each HS in CA? Is it even available to the public?
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 31, 2018 at 9:59 pm
Steven N, Back when I was taking SAT/ACT tests (granted, this was two decades ago), we weren't required to report our scores to our high schools. The section of the application where you enter your high school was optional, and I didn't always have my scores sent to them. A lot has changed, but if that hasn't, even high schools may not know their students' scores.
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