May 30, 2023

Kevin Welner, Kate Somerville: Close Opportunity Gaps Without Gimmicks

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The learning Policy Institute presents four public high schools that have made huge strides in closing opportunity gaps. Here’s an explanation of what Schools of Opportunity are all about.

Since the turn of the century, most discussions about school policy have revolved around test-score gaps, without attention to the opportunity gaps that produced them. A large body of research during the No Child Left Behind era documented the harms caused by focusing school efforts exclusively on raising test scores. These harms included cheating scandals, gaming the system by focusing on students at the proficiency “bubble,” pushing out low-scoring students to hide their achievement from the high-stakes system, a narrowed curriculum, and teaching focused on test-taking skills and test preparation, all resulting in a sacrifice of authentic, engaging, well-rounded learning experiences.

Recent years have brought a greater understanding that achievement gaps result from opportunity gaps. If we attend to the latter, we can address the former. This is even more important in the wake of the pandemic as districts and states across the country are grappling with how to interpret and address low test scores, generally framed as “learning loss.” Will they revert to the use of test scores as a basis for sanctions that lead to gaming, exclusions, and narrowing of learning opportunities? Or will they use scores to increase opportunities to learn, as the New York state comptroller recently urged in a report that highlights the need for schools and districts to “swiftly invest significant resources” to address learning loss for the state’s students in greatest need.

We witnessed the benefits that result from shifting the focus from test-score gaps to opportunity gaps in our research into Schools of Opportunity. The Schools of Opportunity project, housed at University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center, has identified more than 50 public high schools that are using evidence-based practices to address achievement gaps by improving opportunities to learn. Based on a set of 10 research-based criteria, these high schools were recognized as exemplars that show a way forward for policymakers and other schools.

The evidence-based practices used in Schools of Opportunity have positive impacts that go beyond improvements in standard measures of achievement like test scores. For example, these schools are improving school climate by moving toward restorative practices that can reduce suspension rates and improve attendance—an especially important consideration for students of color and students with disabilities, who are excluded from school at higher rates than their peers. They also use assessment practices that are responsive and engaging—like performance assessments—that can promote student–teacher relationships, deeper learning competencies, social-emotional skills, and college and career readiness. And they offer culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy, which positively impacts graduation, attendance, and college enrollment. Many outcomes, including test scores, improve when schools close opportunity gaps.

Read the full post to see four big lessons from these schools and some of the specific examples of what has been done. 


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