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When evaluating a school’s performance, education leaders often look at how the school compares with institutions in its geographic area, how it fares academically against its main athletic rivals, or how it rates against state averages. But are these really the most accurate ways to gauge a school’s performance?

As part of the Nebraska School Improvement Research Partnership, REL Central and the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) came together to find a more accurate approach for selecting schools to compare with one another as peers. The recently released Identifying Similar Schools to Support School Improvement guide describes this effort and provides step-by-step guidelines other state education agencies can use to develop an approach like the NDE’s.

A main objective for the NDE in developing the guide was to provide each school in the state with matched peer schools to guide school improvement decisions. To identify matched peer schools, the NDE identified 27 variables to describe schools and districts based on factors such as overall relevance and availability of historical data at the state level. For example, the variables used for student body makeup included school attendance, graduation rate, percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, percentage of racial/ethnic minority students, percentage of students who are homeless, percentage of migrant and English-learner students, percentage of students with disciplinary issues, and rate of student proficiency in science and math. REL Central worked to develop a system for evaluating the quality of the resulting matches to help determine which decisions about variables and statistical methods provided the best results for Nebraska schools. The approach presented in the REL Central guide is based on these collaborative efforts.

“The peer school feature on our Nebraska Education Profile, brought about by this partnership, has proven to be a powerful school improvement conversation starter,” said Lane Carr, director of accountability at the NDE. “We knew schools were comparing their students’ performance to others, but the schools they were looking at were not truly comparable across a broader range of demographic and community factors. Many of our teams’ conversations with school leaders about improvement typically begin with ‘show me a school that serves similar demographics that is doing this well.’ With this feature, we’ve been able to deliver a more accurate group of peer schools that can be looked to for guidance on implementation, use of interventions and/or curriculum, and other initiatives to improve outcomes for kids.

“We’ve also had rich, more philosophical conversations about the methodology, causing schools to pause and consider the factors (e.g., student and family demographics, census figures) that impact student learning,” Carr noted. “While some schools have ultimately disagreed with the calculations and their specific peer schools, the conversation and process improvement have pushed both the NDE, Educational Service Units (Nebraska’s intermediary agencies), and districts forward toward a more nuanced, data-informed decision-making process.”

A more accurate comparison of peer schools helps those schools gauge their improvement efforts. It also gives the NDE valuable insight into how to strategically improve programs and initiatives to ensure a greater chance of success for students. The REL Central guide provides steps that other state education agencies can use to identify a similar approach that meets their specific needs and contexts.

Comparing apples to apples is preferable to comparing apples to oranges. Using the Nebraska-based approach for identifying similar schools as a model, educators across the nation have the tools to compare apples to apples and are in better position to sow the seeds of student success for years to come.