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Denver Post: Honor Great Schools, Not Great Scores

Lost amid the jumble of misguided ideas from today's purveyors of education policy is a simple truth: Given opportunity and support, children learn. When those opportunities are strong and plentiful, children thrive. When opportunities are limited or denied, children suffer.

This basic truth is ignored when we narrowly focus on test scores. At best, testing can focus instruction on helping students learn something important. At worst, testing and test-preparation are substituted for meaningful learning. In either case, the reality is that testing is not teaching, and our intense focus on test-based policies has diverted our attention and our resources from the key task of ensuring that all children are given robust opportunities to learn.

Test scores have played an oversized role in measuring school quality, even though they provide only limited insight. The real measure of a "good school" is how it strives to provide enriched learning opportunities for all of its children — especially those who have fewer resources outside the school walls.

There are plentiful rankings and rewards for schools based on test-score achievement and other simple outcome measures, and these narrow recognitions inevitably leave out deserving schools, particularly those serving less advantaged communities. These outcome-based rankings fail to publicize those schools that are going above and beyond to close opportunity gaps. By ignoring these exemplars, we all miss out on a chance to learn from the best.

The best way for any school to improve achievement over time is to close gaps in opportunities. Accordingly, we launched a new project called Schools of Opportunity, which will recognize public high schools that engage in research-based practices shown to be effective in making schools excellent and equitable. This project will highlight effective practices that other schools can emulate, and it will honor the great work of educators in those schools. During this pilot year, the recognized high schools will hail from either Colorado or New York; next year, schools throughout the entire nation will be eligible.

As we set about creating this new project, we were faced with a series of questions about what makes a great school. For our primary criteria, we turned to research about how opportunity gaps are created and how they can be closed. We ultimately arrived at a list of 11 research-based practices that we ask applicants to take into account. We ask, for instance, about creating and maintaining a healthy school culture, about ending disparities in learning opportunities created by ability grouping, and about building on the strengths of students whose first language is not English.

We also ask our applicants to tell us about additional approaches they are using. Thorough, rich descriptions of these recognized schools will, we think, help change the conversation about what makes an excellent school. (Nominations can be made through Dec. 1 at opportunitygap.org.)

Very high test scores are certainly desirable. But such scores are most likely to arise from a school's ability to enroll students who have abundant opportunities to learn outside of school. A school's quality can therefore only truly be appreciated if we look beyond the narrow test score focus or the counting of AP test-takers. 

When we adopt this larger vision, we can see a constellation of wonderful exemplars of what we want our schools to be and what we want learning to be. For the sake of our students, it is time we change the conversation about school quality.

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Kevin G. Welner

NEPC director Kevin G. Welner is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, specializing in policy and law. He and Alex Molnar foun...

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...