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Robert Rothman

After thirteen years, Congress appears poised to write a new law to replace the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House is scheduled to vote on its version Friday, Feb 27. Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has held three hearings on the law and its leaders are negotiating to develop a bipartisan bill.

This legislation has sparked heated debate over issues such as the federal role in education, testing, and funding. But there has been little discussion about a core premise of NCLB: that schools should be accountable for student performance. All sides generally agree on that. Congress could advance school improvement substantially, though, if members look at accountability systems and encourage states to adopt data dashboards in place of the relatively simple measures of school performance states currently use.

Simply put, a data dashboard provides an array of information about school performance and practices, rather than a single number like a test score, to show whether a school is succeeding. This information enables educators to focus resources and attention on particular problems and, equally importantly, to monitor and address all issues that affect their own performance. Just as a driver fills up his tank before the gas gauge reaches “E” to keep the car functioning at its highest capacity, a school using a data dashboard can monitor school climate, say, and performance, and make improvements to ensure all students learn.

Related: The biggest losers in the No Child Left Behind rewrite

Data dashboards can help alleviate some of the shortcomings in accountability systems that have been in place in the wake of NCLB and the systems that states have implemented under waivers to that law. First, accountability systems tend to focus on a narrow range of indicators, principally test scores, and thus ignore factors that should be addressed to ensure all students learn what they need to succeed. And even in states that use multiple indicators, most combine them into an index or letter grade that masks problems rather than reveals them. For example, schools with low graduation rates still can earn high letter grades if an accountability system assigns little weight to graduation rates when compiling a school report card. With data dashboards, intervention would still be implemented when students, including those who are traditionally underserved, consistently demonstrate low achievement or graduation rates. But dashboards provide a more comprehensive view of what is happening within schools and allows educators and others to address multiple factors at the same time.

“Thirteen years of NCLB has produced a number of lessons about what works and what doesn’t work in school improvement. It might be time to take a look at data dashboards as a new way of approaching school accountability.”

That’s because a dashboard, makes all indicators clearly evident. Philadelphia’s School Progress Reports show one way to do this. These color-coded reports rate schools in four categories—achievement, progress, climate, and college and career readiness — on a four-point scale: model (highest), reinforce, watch, and intervene (lowest). The district plans to add additional reporting categories this year. The reports also provide an overall rating and show how schools compare on each measure to the district as a whole and to “peer” schools. Thus, schools can see a range of measures of performance without having to decipher a single number.

Related: California district makes a choice between No Child Left Behind and Obama ed policies

A second problem with accountability systems is that they provide limited guidance to schools about what they should to do improve performance. Schools receive low marks, but that’s all. In that way, the systems function like a “check engine” light on a car dashboard, when specific measures such as oil pressure, temperature, and fuel consumption would be more helpful.

With a dashboard, however, schools can see — and make public — the areas of practice and performance that need improvement. They can then focus resources on those issues and make improvements even before districts or states intervene. In Monroe County, Georgia, for example, the locally developed dashboard includes data on organizational effectiveness (including new teacher retentions, facilities quality, and internet access); student, staff, and community engagement (including the number of business partners, staff attendance, and music performances); professional learning; and student performance on a range of measures. In that way, the district can monitor the factors that lead to high performance and not wait until performance dips.

Third, state accountability systems are just that—state systems. For reasons of equity they include measures that all districts are expected to use. But in doing so they do not allow local districts to hold themselves accountable for additional factors, such as assessments of student performance that might be infeasible to administer statewide.

Related: California districts receive special waiver from No Child Left Behind

One example of a hybrid system is the one New Hampshire is piloting in four districts. That system would incorporate local performance assessments with state assessments and state-developed performance tasks to provide a rich picture of student achievement.

Leaders in districts that have used data dashboards say the systems have transformed accountability from a top-down finger-pointing exercise to a collaborative effort aimed at school improvement. In San Jose, California, for example, under a system in place since 2013, principals now meet with district leaders four times a year to go over the data on their dashboards and their plans for addressing problem areas. The approach has ended the “culture of mistrust” that characterized the previous system, Assistant Superintendent Jason Willis told me.

What can Congress do to support the shift toward data dashboards? Encourage states to take this approach. A new version of NCLB would not have to mandate it; if Congress recommends the approach, that could influence state actions. In the meantime, states can develop such systems while they operate under NCLB waivers.

Thirteen years of NCLB has produced a number of lessons about what works and what doesn’t work in school improvement. It might be time to take a look at data dashboards as a new way of approaching school accountability.

Robert Rothman is a Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C., and the author of Something in Common: The Common Core Standards and the Next Chapter in American Education.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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