Nonacademic indicators like school climate or Social Emotional Learning, and next-generation achievement measures like value-added or growth calculations are key facets of many state plans under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA (the federal law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.) A consortium of large school districts in California has a big head start on the national change in education policy—they’ve been compiling sophisticated data along these new metrics in their schools for years now.

In 2013, eight California districts were already five years into a working partnership to implement the Common Core standards through an organization they had created called the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE. At the time, the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act was still on the books, and states were applying en masse for waivers that would give them a pass on unrealistically high achievement expectations set over a decade before.

While most states were granted waivers, giving them access to federal funds in exchange for promised policy changes, California’s application was rejected. The CORE districts, which include Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Ana, Sanger, Sacramento City, and Fresno, filed a separate application and were the only non-state-level educational agencies to win a federal Education Department waiver. Together the CORE districts account for more than 15 percent of the students in California’s K-12 system, or over 1.1 million students, making the consortium larger than most state K-12 systems nationally.

Then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided to make an exception for the CORE districts in large part because of their unique take on school improvement and accountability. In addition to looking at test scores, the CORE districts were promising to take a holistic view of student performance and school quality. The eight California districts said they would evaluate schools based on school climate surveys, rates of chronic absenteeism, and the social emotional mindsets of their students. The districts were also promising to lower the number of students enrolled necessary to trigger special disaggregated reporting for sub-group status from 100 to 20, which was seen as an important protection for minority or historically marginalized student groups.

Today, changes to federal accountability policy and the state plans that have been submitted for compliance purposes herald a national shift toward the work the CORE districts have been doing since their waiver was granted. This positions the select California districts as a uniquely important case study for how ESSA’s reforms could play out. Even better for researchers, the CORE districts decided early on to put a particular premium on quality data collection.

Heather Hough, the executive director of the research work done with the CORE districts at the nonprofit Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, spoke with InsideSources about the research side of CORE’s innovative accountability work. Hough and her team have published some preliminary reports on the data they have gathered.

In other parts of the country, stakeholders have been reticent to move beyond simple test score measures to evaluate school quality, in part because Social Emotional Learning and school climate rubrics are relatively unproven. Some are concerned that the measurements may be inaccurate, that they might be measuring things schools don’t have a major impact on, or that they might not be sophisticated enough to capture school improvement over time.

Hough said that CORE has addressed these concerns by starting with the premise that data, particularly in new areas like Social Emotional Learning, is “used as a flashlight, not as a hammer” to punish schools that score poorly. This year is the third year that PACE is gathering information about how non-academic indicators correlate to changes in test scores.

Dave Calhoun, the director of research, evaluation, and assessment for Fresno Unified, one of the CORE districts, stressed that the innovative efforts were more focused on school improvement, rather than high-stakes accountability. “We’re not looking at this from an accountability only lens where you just put up a bunch of results and say ‘yay’ for the high performing schools and craft sanctions for the low performing schools—that’s kind of an old approach,” he said.

Rather, Calhoun is pushing his team to get schools to think about how they can use the data to systematically replicate what works and foster growth in all of their schools. (Calhoun referred to a Carnegie Foundation white paper that he said acts as a blueprint for his district’s continuous improvement efforts.)

Hough also made the argument that “what you measure is what gets paid attention to.” In other words, by making it clear to educators that their student’s mindsets and their school’s climate is being closely watched, administrators and faculty are more likely to focus efforts in those areas. Calhoun agreed that he has seen improvement in Social Emotional Learning indicators in his student surveys since his district made it a point of emphasis.

Though it is still early in PACE’s longitudinal study of the CORE districts’ continuous improvement work, Hough said that her researchers are already seeing signs of good news. Based on the first two complete years of data, that includes sophisticated growth measures of achievement, Social Emotional Learning, school climate, and chronic absenteeism, she said, “there is good evidence that we can use the measures for school improvement, but it’s not conclusive.”

Once they have enough data to discern clearer patterns, PACE will publish its findings, she said. Should their hypothesis be proven correct, that focusing on growth and non-academic indicators can improve overall school performance, the results would likely be used to affirm the change in course prompted nationally by ESSA.

One possible wrinkle remains, however. Because of changes under ESSA, the CORE districts are being rolled back into the state’s accountability system. While California’s plan is still only in draft form, early signs suggest that the statewide accountability system will be slightly less sophisticated than the work the CORE districts have been doing for years now. As a result, state and CORE district officials are weighing whether to give the CORE districts another special dispensation, making them an “innovation zone” within the state system that would allow them to continue their forward-looking work.

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