Melissa Mellor

Tacoma Public Schools: Measuring the Whole Child

Educators across the nation are working to improve their students' academic achievement, engage families and communities in learning, and maintain safe and healthy learning environments. But in Washington State's Tacoma Public Schools, educators are being held accountable for all of these responsibilities, not just their students' performance on tests. That's because the district is strategically aligning its accountability system with its overall purpose of supporting the whole child.

Tacoma started with its four main goals for its students: academic excellence and the elimination of disparities among student groups; partnerships that engage parents, community, and staff; early academic success; and safe learning environments. Then it began the painstaking process of identifying the best measures that would show how well schools and the district are doing in each of those areas. The resulting indicators range from typical accountability metrics such as student assessment results and graduation rates to less common measures such as student participation in extracurricular activities, school climate survey participation and results, information about expanded learning opportunities, preschool and kindergarten access, and discipline data. For more information on the measures in Tacoma Public Schools' accountability system, go to www.ascd.org/ppsummer14-tacoma (PDF).

Joshua Garcia, deputy superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, says that the system is rooted in the belief that no single indicator or subject can fully capture a school's effectiveness. He emphasizes that the district's crucial decision to ensure that the accountability measures reflect student outcomes—as opposed to adult measures such as teacher evaluation results—facilitated the community's approval of the system and helped to establish the district as a trusted voice in this work.

Now, the district is developing a performance matrix that defines levels of school performance (from distinguished to unsatisfactory) for each of the measures that will eventually be tied to consequences and support for the schools that are underperforming. School and district performance on the measures will also be reported so that the entire community can see how it's doing.

Re-envisioning accountability hasn't been easy; Garcia cites challenges related to calibrating common definitions for its data, creating the technology and infrastructure to track that data, and communicating the new approach to multiple stakeholders. However, the district is already seeing results. Since the 2012–13 school year, there has been a 29 percent increase in the number of students enrolled in preschool. As a result of the system, Tacoma is now tracking the percentage of its graduates who have received a verified acceptance letter from a postsecondary institution. And community organizations and nonprofits have agreed to focus their partnerships with Tacoma schools on the district's goals. "We're making a difference, and it's not just the schools that are doing it," says Garcia.

It is time for a new generation of accountability that fully reflects a more comprehensive definition of student success, accurately measures student learning, and more systematically tracks our efforts to support children. The latest issue of Policy Priorities examines the benefits and challenges of more meaningful accountability systems and profiles pioneering states and districts that are doing this work.

Policy Priorities is ASCD's policy newsletter which provides background and context for critical, timely education policy issues. Subscribe to the newsletter and join Educator Advocates to get informed, get involved, and make a difference.

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