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New Tools for Measuring Context


"For over half a century, education researchers have recognized the importance of school context for many aspects of education, from teaching and learning to the hidden curriculum that reproduces social inequality. Harnessing the prosocial power of school contextual effects on students' development, either directly or indirectly through the enhanced work of school professionals, is valuable because elements of the school context may be responsive to carefully crafted education policy. However, assessing and determining successful policy depends on the proper measurement of context and adequate data to estimate effects. In contrast to the physical or financial resources of a school or district, the school context is inherently social and depends on social relationships, both potential and realized, as well as the characteristics of each person interacting within the school context. In other words, any particular context may affect different people differently, and individuals inhabit multiple contexts simultaneously. Consequently, schools have many contexts under one roof, with the social nature of the school context presenting challenges to measurement over time and space. This paper describes issues in measuring school contexts with an eye toward understanding students' experiences and outcomes, the initiatives currently under way at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that relate to measuring school contexts, possible gaps in those initiatives that if filled could provide valuable new data for researchers, and new approaches and opportunities for measuring school context. After a discussion of special considerations for measurement related to diverse populations and youth development, I conclude with recommendations for future priorities."