Educational Indicators Essay

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Educational indicators are pieces of evidence that provide information about the success of educational programs, policies, or processes. The indicators used in different instances depend on the goals that are being examined and the level of education that is being evaluated. There is no universally agreed upon set of educational indicators primarily because in a diverse society there is ambiguity regarding the aims of education. Educational indicators can be standard measures that are easily compared or nonstandard assessments used to judge the value of educational outcomes.

Reports of educational successes or failures are conclusions based on analyses of the indicators that were selected for the evaluation. Educational indicators exist at the societal level, the systemic (district or state) level, the school level, and the individual level. This entry looks at various kinds of indicators and what they purport to say about education.

Indicators Of Social Aims Of Education

Education is a fundamental institution of society and is frequently used as a vehicle to accomplish broad goals such as social justice and equity. Social justice refers to the equal treatment of citizens under the law, regardless of social class, race, religion, disability or other characteristics. Historically, underprivileged and minority groups have not had the same opportunities as the majority to attain a high quality education. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate schools for racial groups were permissible if they were equal. However, in 1954 this ruling was overturned when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal was inherently unequal.” The Court effectively set up racial integration of schools as an indicator of social justice.

Another social aim of education is equity, or the provision of equal opportunities for all. In the 1960s a number of studies concluded that family income had a large impact upon the educational attainment of students, and that children from low-income homes did not have an equal chance of success without some form of intervention. This ushered in an era of compensatory educational programs aimed at increasing opportunities for the success of high-poverty students. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 provided funding for schools to offer programs designed to “level the playing field” for these students. Multiple factors may be used as indicators of such broad-based social aims as social justice in education, because there is no simple or obvious way to measure attainment of these complex goals.

Indicators And School Accountability

Since the 1990s, educational reforms have stressed the need for greater school, district, and state accountability for results in education. In response to this push, most school districts and states began to develop systems for tracking and reporting school effectiveness. Prior to the passage of federal legislation, each state was left to decide whether to report student achievement to the public, and if so, to determine how.

In 1994, ESEA was reauthorized under the Improving America’s Schools Act. In 2002, it was again reauthorized and renamed the No Child Left Behind Act. This federal legislation requires states to report on the academic achievement of students at each individual school. In compliance with No Child Left Behind, each state developed an accountability plan for reporting academic achievement to the public. School accountability systems usually focus on student achievement in core academic areas such as mathematics, reading or English, science, and social studies.

Although educational indicators of student achievement used by the states vary somewhat, student performance on standardized tests is the primary indicator of educational success in most accountability programs. These tests can be state criterion-referenced tests that measure attainment of state standards, or norm-referenced tests that compare student achievement to national norms. State accountability plans may also include other indicators, such as attendance, graduation, and/or dropout rates. The indicators selected by the states are weighted, in some fashion determined by the state, and used to calculate a school index score that reports the mean achievement of students at each school. This score is intended to inform the public about how effective each school is. No Child Left Behind also requires that a separate score be calculated for each subpopulation within the schools; this is meant to serve as an indicator of equity.

Other Systemic-Level Educational Indicators

There are a number of indicators of educational quality that are not frequently included in school accountability reports. Some of these include: high school graduation rates, scholarships issued, grade-point averages, advanced courses taken, student attitudes toward school, suspension rates, and portfolios of student work. Post–high school indicators of school success might include college graduation rates, incarceration rates, or income, but these measures are controversial as educational indicators because there are a number of other factors that could impact them besides the educational system.

States and school districts also use indicators to signal the success of specific educational programs. The indicators selected depend on the goals of the particular policies or programs under evaluation. For example, if a drug prevention program is being evaluated, indicators of success might include student attitudes toward drugs before and after participation in the program, self-reported use of drugs following participation in the program, comparison of rates of drug use for participants versus nonparticipants, or arrests for drug use in areas that have had the program in use for a while.

Indicators of the effectiveness of particular programs include measures of whatever outcome the program was expected to impact. Usually these outcomes are compared with outcomes of similar populations that did not participate in the program. Analysts use various techniques to interpret the meaning of the indicators, for example input-output models might be used to determine the cost effectiveness of various initiatives. For example, when determining the amount of state money to be appropriated to English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, indicators of success might include comparisons of grades or graduation rates of program participants and nonparticipants. A cost-benefit strategy might be employed to determine whether the benefits derived from the program (based on the indicators selected) merit the amount of investment required.

Individual-Level Indicators Of Educational Attainment

Student growth from year to year in each major discipline is frequently considered an indicator of individual student learning. Standardized tests provide an easy means of assessing growth when they report the grade level equivalent scores. A simple comparison of student scores from year to year can indicate student academic growth. Grades are also a commonly used indicator of student achievement. College admission departments frequently rely on a combination of student high school grade point average (GPA) and student score on a standardized admissions test such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which measures reasoning and verbal abilities, or the American College Test (ACT), which is designed to measure mastery of various subject areas. Some colleges use other indicators of student achievement or ability such as questionnaires, interviews, or portfolios to predict a student’s potential for success in higher education.

 “Authentic” Assessment Indicators

Educational indicators that do not involve test scores are used less frequently, regardless of the level or program, but are considered by some to be more authentic measures of student learning. Proponents of authentic assessment argue that test scores are not the only measures of student achievement, nor are they necessarily the most valid means of assessing competence or learning. Authentic indicators of achievement might include student performances, presentations, projects, demonstrations, oral or written discourses, or other demonstrations that allow an assessment of student mastery. Authentic educational indicators are sometimes collected in portfolios.

Critics of authentic indicators cite problems with the use of portfolios in education, including lack of clarity or uniformity in determining what goes into a portfolio and difficulty in arriving at a standard means of comparing the data from student to student and from school to school.


  1. Fitz-Gibbon, C., & Kochan, S. (2000). School effectiveness and education indicators. In C. Teddlie & D. Reynolds (Eds.), The international handbook of school effectiveness research (pp. 257–282). New York: Falmer Press.
  2. Newmann, F., & Associates. (1996). Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Pullin, D. (1999). Whose schools are these and what are they for? The rule of law in defining educational opportunity in American public education. In G. Cizek (Ed.), Handbook of educational policy (pp. 4–29). San-Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  4. Serow, R., Castelli, P., & Castelli, V. (2000). Social foundations of American education. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  5. Thomas, J. Y., & Brady, K. (2005). Equity, accountability, and the evolving federal role in public education. Review of Research in Education, 29, 51–67.

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