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Quality Counts: What Might the Future of Accountability Look Like Under ESSA?

So you've probably heard by now that the theme of Education Week's annual Quality Counts report is "accountability"—just in time for the arrival of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the newest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESSA, of course, gives states a chance to reimagine how they measure school performance, test kids, set goals, and fix schools that aren't up to snuff.

We pick themes—and stories—months in advance, so we got really lucky this time around that we went to a few places that are already experimenting with some new ways of thinking when it comes to accountability, testing, and school improvement.

Here's a look at the key questions explored in the report: 

  • Can you really measure factors like "growth mindset"? Under ESSA, states are required to choose some other factor—like school climate, or social and emotional learning—to use alongside more traditional factors like tests and graduation rates for accountability purposes. States were already given this flexibility under waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, but most of them didn't take the U.S. Department of Education up on it. However, a set of districts out in Calfiornia—the CORE districts—have started measuring growth mindset and other non-traditional indicators for accountability. Education Week staff writer Evie Blad wrote an on-the-ground profile of how all that is playing out in Los Angeles. A lot of experts—including Carol Dweck, who basically came up with the idea for growth mindset, think that these factors are good for schools to focus on, but they really aren't meant to be used in accountability. So we may be in for some interesting times.
  • Many folks are tired of fill-in-the-bubble tests, so what's the future of assessments? ESSA has also opened a pilot project for a handful of states to check out "innovative" approaches to assessment, like performance tasks. These tests were popular back in the 1990s and some educators say they do a much-better job of capturing students' higher-order thinking skills than the standardized tests we've seen over the past decade. Even before ESSA passed, New Hampshire already got a waiver to try performance tests in a handful of districts. Politics K-12's Andrew Ujifusa went there to see how it's going. The bottom line is that teachers are excited and think these tests are measuring the right kinds of skills. But these assessments aren't easy to design, administer, or score. It's also really, really hard to make the scoring comparable—which could be an even bigger issue as more states try this and as these tests are used with historically underperforming subgroups of students.
  • Do states really have the capacity to fix their lowest-performing schools? You may have heard the School Improvement Grant program was eliminated under ESSA. It's been replaced with a much-more flexible approach to turnarounds that leaves a lot of room for cooperation between states and districts. One of the big criticism of SIG was that the money went straight from the state to the school without any real role for the district. That hasn't been a problem in Massachusetts, which I visited. Its accountability system labels not just states but entire districts and really works to build district capacity for turnarounds. Under ESSA, states may opt to "triage" their lowest-performing schools, giving the most help to the schools that need it most. The Bay State has put more thought into how that would work than just about anyone else.  

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