The Intersection

Legacy and Looking Forward: School Accountability Under ESSA – Part II

October 19, 2016

In my last blog, Looking Forward: School Accountability Under ESSA – Part I, I reflected on the legacy of school accountability. In brief: it has done some important good and has had some notable downsides. I suggest that absent careful thought by states in putting together their ESSA-compliant accountability plans, some of the challenges that have troubled school accountability are unlikely to be resolved. So here is quick list (by no means exhaustive) of the issues around school accountability that states should think about when designing their ESSA accountability systems.  They won’t go away on their own.

What is assessed and the consequences of that. Because math and English are the subjects that are most regularly tested and factor the most into school accountability, they get the focus in schools. But so many other subjects are important too – science, social studies, writing (which too often is not tested on English language arts tests), technical subjects, the arts, music, etc. ESSA calls for a well-rounded education, but it only requires math and English tests (and three science tests). It’s understandable given that there would likely be zero appetite for the U.S. Congress mandating more assessments. But this difference between what we value versus what we measure is going to remain for state policymakers and educators.

The trade-offs among test quality, time and cost. The vast majority of states have given new assessments in the years leading up to ESSA. Those tests are harder and set a higher bar. But because ESSA compliant systems will still have student achievement on standardized tests as a central component, states must ensure that test are worth taking. The more innovative ways of testing that might more deeply align with our learning goals are often more costly and time intensive. Trade-offs between time, cost and quality are still important. I can’t help but wonder if some of the gap between the public’s support for testing (nearly 80 percent on the latest PDK poll) and teacher support for testing (52 percent) has something to do with teachers simply not believing the tests are high-quality and representative of their instructional goals. There is some evidence we are moving in the right direction, but there is still a ways to go.

Fairness for adults. Fairness for students. What is in the locus of control of educators? Hold educators accountable for something they can’t change, that’s not fair to them, frustrating and counter-productive. Fail to hold educators accountable for something they can change, that’s not fair to the students who depend on them. 

I think there is a middle ground that most educators and policy wonks can agree to philosophically about test results: robust measures of growth are the fairest way to use assessment results to determine educator performance (especially when combined with other data). Yet – we also know that growing isn’t achieving. Students who start out with a deficit might grow every year and not catch up. Growth is a fairer measure for thinking about adult performance, but ultimately, it is only important for students if it leads to them achieving at high levels and being ready for life after graduation. How states balance and use growth and absolute achievement scores in accountability systems will continue to be important and challenging.

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