While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gave states the opportunity to broaden and deepen their visions of what makes for an excellent education, researchers and states have both struggled to design measures and systems that take meaningful steps in that direction. Most of us would agree that primary grade literacy, knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and productive transitions to employment and postsecondary education, for example, are essential and measurable aspects of schooling in America. Yet their appearances in ESSA accountability plans are rare to nonexistent.
The same is true for another essential area of the educational experience—enrichment experiences, which are abundant in virtually all respected schools, and which research confirms contribute profoundly to the lifelong interests and habits students take on as adults. Enrichment experiences, however, are not proportionally made available to all students at all schools. In Louisiana, for example, where I’m an assistant superintendent at the state education department, the average student in the district with the lowest enrichment enrollment is accessing 61 percent fewer enrichment courses than her counterpart in the district with the highest enrichment enrollment.
There is a clear and growing national interest to change this by elevating the role of enrichment opportunities in K–12 education. Louisiana is one of at least eight states and the District of Columbia that proposed a measurement of enrichment experiences in their ESSA plans. But with each plan in various stages of development and implementation, the best approach remains unclear. Louisiana is now navigating this important but complicated process, and we are interested in partnering with others doing the same and, together, informing best practices for children across our nation.
Louisiana’s state education board approved the concept of an “Interests and Opportunities Index” to eventually account for 5 percent of a school’s performance score—a number conservative enough to preserve the importance of traditional metrics but high enough to entice school leaders to expand quality enrichment experiences on their campuses. Soon after, the Louisiana Department of Education convened a working group of state educators to study the index and began to develop a proposed means of measuring performance in this area. It also issued a Request for Information that called on state and national organizations that support arts education, physical education, foreign language, technology, and career education to demonstrate the types of models they could implement to achieve reliable and fair measurement across these content areas.
While the specific models varied, all of the responses to the Request for Information provided strategies for going beyond basic course enrollment data and diving deeper into students’ experiences through surveys, student work samples, and program evaluations. None were ready for primetime, however.
Measures need to be developed, vetted and tested in the field to ensure they are valid, reliable, and able to be implemented on a wide scale and for high stakes. This has not been done.
To overcome this challenge, Louisiana is now partnering with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the New Orleans Arts Education Alliance, and the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon to develop a comprehensive system to measure excellence across the curriculum, rather than in the four core subjects alone.
Schools are essential institutions not just for producing literate, numerate citizens, but also for providing children a view of the wider world, building knowledge, sparking imaginations, and forging lifelong interests. It is appropriate that states evaluate schools partially on their ability to do this, just as it is important that we conduct this evaluation in the fairest way possible. This will take serious work and collaboration among the states. But if it is done right, it can open the door for a more robust accountability system, and in turn, improved outcomes for every child, every day.
Jessica Baghian is the Assistant Superintendent of Assessment, Accountability, Analytics, and Early Childhood for the Louisiana Department of Education. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter @JBaghian.