Evaluating the Success of High Schools

When we started the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004, our initial objective was to help increase the high school graduation rate in the city. We soon added the goal of helping increase the percentage of graduates who enroll in and complete a post-secondary course of study.

We also decided that we would not be obsessed with standardized test scores. It’s not that we didn’t think test scores are important; it’s just that we didn’t think all the emphasis should be on them. We also knew that many of our students were coming to us far behind where they should have been academically and that it could take awhile for many of them to make up lost ground. Consequently, we decided that when they passed a test or graduated was not nearly as important as that they eventually did pass the test and graduate.

Over time, we came to the conclusion that the best indicator of how well our schools perform is in how well our graduates do in the next phase of their lives. In other words, how well did we prepare them for what comes next? If we give a student a diploma and that student enrolls in college and has to take a remedial course, we have failed. We’ve failed that student; we’ve failed the taxpayers; and we’ve failed ourselves.

Similarly, if we graduate a student who goes to work, but lacks the work habits or cultural capital to succeed on the job, we have failed that student. We have also failed the student’s employer.

We take this view because we are well aware that our schools operate in a larger context. We receive inputs (e.g. students, money) from outside the school, and after a period of time we send those students out to another school, to a job, or – in a worst case situation – to the unemployment line or the streets. What happens to those students – the ones who do well and the ones who don’t – matters to us.

Character, cultural capital, social skills, problem-solving ability, academic achievement – all of these are important. We pay attention to them. We also keep track of our graduates as much as we can for as long as we can. We want to know where they are, what they are doing, and how they are doing. From time to time, our graduates tell us how well we did or did not prepare them for college. At times, their feedback has prompted us to make changes so we might do a better job going forward.

We believe schools should be held accountable for their results. We hold ourselves accountable, and we want others to evaluate us based on what really matters. We also recognize how difficult it is to design an evaluation system that does that. Current systems by which we are evaluated use measures that are readily available and that provide immediate feedback. These can be useful and meaningful to a point. But for a more complete picture of how well a school is doing its job, we need to look at student growth and success over a longer period of time.

We will continue to do the best job we can to help every student develop his or her potential and be well prepared for what comes next. As we go about our work, it helps to keep in mind Einstein’s view that “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”