Analysis: Engagement, Demographics, Academic, Economics — School Needs Index a New Way to Gauge Success in Serving Students With the Greatest Challenges

(National Campaign for Highest-Need Students)

A version of this essay originally appeared on the FutureEd blog.

We have heard a great deal over the course of the pandemic about learning loss. But while the negative impact of COVID-19 on students of all kinds is becoming increasingly clear, some students have struggled since long before the pandemic, including those living in extreme poverty or without homes; students in juvenile justice facilities; and overage, undercredited high schoolers.

Existing measures of school performance, however, don’t provide enough information to identify which are doing a good job with these vulnerable student populations and which aren’t.

Knowing a school’s numbers of English learners, children with disabilities and students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and their proficiency rates on standardized tests doesn’t reveal the schools’ relative success with the toughest-to-educate students. To the contrary, under traditional measures of school performance, the more high-need students a school serves, the worse its performance looks.

These challenges, and a desire to identify schools that do a great job in meeting them so they can serve as a model, have been the focus since 2018 of the National Campaign for Highest-Need Students. This initiative grew out of the work of ACE Charter Schools, a network founded by community leaders in San Jose, California, intent on addressing the profound academic struggles of the area’s most disengaged and disenfranchised students.

The campaign turned to Education Analytics and Public Impact, companies that support school improvement, to develop a School Needs Index to more precisely determine the level of student academic, social and emotional need in each school and gauge which have been most successful in supporting the most disadvantaged students.

Their model, outlined in a new report, Identifying Schools Achieving Great Results with Highest-Need Students, gives decisionmakers a tool for determining which schools serve the highest-need students and which lead to the greatest student success. The School Needs Index groups dozens of student characteristics into four domains to assess the level of student need: engagement (including chronic absenteeism and suspension rates); demographics (students who are new to the school, from migrant families or with a specific disability status); academics (including prior test scores); and economics (estimates of family income or homelessness).

Unlike measures of need based on opinion or politics, the index includes and weights characteristics based on how much they actually contribute to student outcomes, such as reading and math learning.

With this measure of school need in hand, it becomes possible to compare how well each school is doing with highest-need students, compared with schools serving similar students. Importantly, the analysis focuses on students’ learning growth, rather than merely a snapshot of their performance, allowing policymakers to see which schools are doing the best job serving these students.

The framework, which we continue to refine, provides a critical step toward scaling up the best models for highest-need students, because we can finally see which schools are having the greatest impact for the students we have systematically failed to support.

With better information, system leaders and other decisionmakers can direct resources more equitably, and they can hold schools accountable based on their true accomplishments. And schools can begin to learn much more from one another about what it takes to give the highest-need students the schools they deserve.

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to Public Impact, ACE Charter Schools and Maybach Media.

Bryan C. Hassel is co-president of Public Impact. Greg Lippman is founder and CEO of ACE Charter Schools, and founder of the National Campaign for Highest-Need Students. To attend a webinar about the School Needs Index on Thursday, June 17, from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern, click here.

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