Arlington, VA

Ed Talk: Accountability

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Accountability in education means having clear goals for student achievement and data that is readily available to decision-makers and the public to assess progress toward those goals.

Strategic Planning – Setting Goals

Strategic planning charts a long-term course for school divisions, setting goals and specifying metrics to provide accountability.

The Arlington Public Schools (APS) 2018-24 Strategic Plan includes this goal: “APS will eliminate opportunity gaps so all students achieve excellence.” The Plan includes performance objectives for this goal, such as:

  • Increased achievement for all reporting groups on district and state assessments shows progress toward eliminating the opportunity gap.
  • All students will make at least one year’s worth of growth as measured by federal, state, and/or district assessments.

However, the Plan includes no quantitative benchmarks for academic performance. How much should achievement increase by 2024? How is one year’s worth of growth calculated?

Compare this with the APS 2011-17 Strategic Plan. For the goal that every student is challenged and engaged, the Plan included 21 key performance indicators, setting quantitative targets for 2017 for achievement in reading, math, science, and history/social studies, as well as for on-time graduation rates, enrollment and performance in advanced classes, and SAT/ACT scores.

For the goal of eliminating achievement gaps, the 2011-17 Plan had 23 key performance indicators, each including data for seven groups of students – resulting in 161 performance targets.

The School Board should build on its Strategic Plan to add quantitative key performance indicators. Establishing these targets as part of the Strategic Plan is critical for APS staff and the public to know what the expectations are for our students.

Monitoring Progress/Data Transparency

How does the School Board monitor student performance? One method is program evaluations.  These are thorough reviews that include classroom observations, data analysis, and recommendations for improvement, conducted about every six years for each academic discipline.

For example, an extensive English Language Arts (ELA) Program Evaluation was completed in May 2019 and considered during a January School Board work session. The previous ELA evaluation was completed in 2013.

APS collects vast amounts of student achievement data, as required by law. In previous years, the School Board reviewed data for the key performance indicators in its Strategic Plan during a series of meetings each fall. The Board could see how different groups of students were performing on a variety of measures over many years. From this, the Board could consider what was working well and where adjustments might be needed to enhance success.

The School Board’s Budget Advisory Council recommended in its 2019 Annual Report that the School Board have better metrics to identify successful strategies to improve student outcomes.  The Report states that such data is necessary to inform budget priorities and other decisions.

The School Board, and public, would benefit from a more regular review of student data during the Board’s public meetings.

In addition, APS should make data more accessible to the public. For many years, APS had a data dashboard on its website with test scores, graduation rates, advanced course enrollment, student wellness measures, and other data by school, school levels, and students groups. While one can find the dashboard online, it is no longer on the APS website and data has not been updated since 2018. Data that is available on the APS website is not nearly as comprehensive as the dashboard.

APS should have a data dashboard on its website with comprehensive measures of student success and wellness.

Quantitative targets for student achievement, more regular School Board review of student performance toward these targets, and more transparent data will enhance accountability and assist decisionmakers.

Abby Raphael served on the Arlington School Board from 2008-2015, including two terms as Chair. She also led the Washington Area Boards of Education for two years. Currently she co-chairs the Project Peace Prevention Committee and Destination 2027 Steering Committee, is a member of the Board of the Arlington YMCA, and works with the Community Progress Network and Second Chance.

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