Identifying Successful Schools for Low Income and Minority Group Students

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner - January 2008

Most research that looks at successful schools or tracks improvement in education uses standardized test scores as the sole criterion for measuring progress. Such research may produce strong evidence about the practices and policies that raise test scores, but it provides little useful information about what goes into high quality education. Using test results to identify successful schools and then determine "effective practices" for raising those scores ignores the important but untested learning and characteristics that students, parents and the public seek from schools.

A recently released study on equitable high schools intentionally took a very different approach. High Schools for Equity: Policy Supports for Student Learning in Communities of Color examined five nonselective California public high schools. While the researchers explicitly recognized the limits and biases of standardized exams, they first used test scores to establish a pool of schools because scores are among the few indicators systematically collected. They then evaluated a richer array of evidence to identify five high-quality institutions. Justice Matters and the School Redesign Network at Stanford University sponsored the study; the research team was led by Diane Friedlaender and Linda Darling-Hammond.

The study defined school success as providing an education that is academically rigorous while being relevant, responsive and connected to students' cultures. Each profiled school constructs successful learning experiences for low-income students of color. The environment is characterized by caring, respectful relationships with students and families, and the school offers a range of supports tailored to bolster learning. Success also included the schools' ability to retain students through to graduation.

According to the report, "We sought evidence that students in the schools learn to demonstrate their knowledge in rigorous and authentic ways that ensure they are able to investigate and evaluate ideas, communicate and defend their thoughts orally and in writing, and develop intellectual and practical products that meet high standards of evidence and performance."

The schools make extensive use of performance assessments, portfolios and exhibitions. Work on the performance tasks is more engaging for students and provides opportunity for regular feedback by teachers. These assessments are a fundamental part of the instructional process while providing more comprehensive evidence of student achievement. Teachers use them in their own extensive professional development.

High Schools for Equity also studied how district and state policies hinder or enable the schools' efforts to carry out successful practices. It found that high-stakes standardized tests are a serious impediment to the schools' ability to engage in high quality instruction.

One policy recommendation is to redesign assessment systems at the state and local levels to better represent applications of knowledge and skills through performance assessment. The report's recommendations are based in the California context, but many are nationally relevant.

A policy brief can be downloaded at

The full report can be downloaded at