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A New Start on Accountability

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Three of my favorite policy analysts kicked off a blog series intended to prompt a productive dialogue around fixing school accountability systems (#TheNewAccountability). Paul Hill and Robin Lake, CRPE, and Michael Petrilli, Fordham Institute, are equity advocates that have advanced a portfolio of options approach to urban education. They acknowledge how controversial this topic is off the bat:

Every child should be in a school where he or she can learn effectively. That's not a controversial goal in itself, but the methods meant to accomplish it can become hot buttons. That's the case with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which made the goal a national policy. It's also becoming the case with the Common Core, under which states commit to educate children to rigorous standards.

Actions taken in pursuit of the goal are controversial because they are difficult and complicated. There is a lot of work of many kinds to be done: improving teacher training, experimenting with more effective methods, and continuously improving learning opportunities for children. Moreover, none of these tasks are enough by themselves. What ties them together is accountability--the use of standards, measures, judgments, and remedies to ensure that students are making significant progress over time and, if some are not, ensure that they have access to better opportunities.

They convened a discussion group which outlined six principles (a full list can be found here):

  1. All parents need to know immediately when, based on current achievement levels, their children are not likely to graduate high school, or be ready for college or a rewarding, career-ladder job.

  2. Student test scores are indispensable as timely indicators of student and school progress. But they should be considered along with other valid indicators, e.g., course completion and normal progress toward graduation.

  3. Every family should have the choice among public schools that are demonstrably capable of educating children well.

  4. States and school districts must support creation of new options for kids who are not learning.

  5. School leaders must have enough freedom to lead their schools and take responsibility for the results they get.

  6. States should hold schools, not individual teachers, accountable for student progress.

I love the idea of a 'good school promise' (best captured by #3) and think it should form the backbone of every states ed code. This list is a good start but doesn't adequately capture the opportunity of next generation learning.

The commitment to 'off track' warning is good but more broadly students and parents should have immediate access to progress monitoring. This will take better progress tracking using achievement data from a variety of sources. Similarly, it's not quite accurate to call (end of year state) test scores "timely indicators." Students and families should have real time access to academic progress information.

The draft presumes a neighborhood school as provider but (like most college students) a growing number of high school students will be building multi provider transcripts through Course Access and Dual Enrollment (see Making the Most of State Course Access Programs). We've suggested that this requires much more robust guidance and support systems.

Most significant, the principles are rooted in test based accountability from an era of data poverty when big year end tests began to be used for too many functions: instructional improvement, teacher evaluation, student matriculation management, and school quality. Rather than asking "How to motivate students to do their best on week long tests?" Next gen accountability will use discrete (but aligned/comparable) data for discrete needs.

Toward student centered learning. "I think of "a new start on accountability" as a system aligned to student-centered learning," said Susan Patrick of iNACOL. That means "Meaningful data at the instructional level and systems of assessments that provide much richer data than our current system. Imagine student data and evidence of students demonstrating through a performance their proficiency level on each and every standard along a learning progression."

Patrick envisions students having a standards-based profile that allowed three pieces of evidence to be collected for each standard (e.g., projects, tasks, adaptive and embedded assessments) validated through summative assessments--including on demand end of unit and course exams-- that are more modular in nature. This competency-based approach would require an entry assessment for placement and comparable growth measures that could answer the question, "how much learning is happening per unit of time."

For a professional practice and capacity-focused view, see Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm from Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit and Linda Pittenger, National Center for Innovation in Education. It's short on intervention and options but there are five aspects that are on the mark:

  • It starts with a nod to Conley's Think, Know, Act, Go goals frameworks--a good summary of college and career readiness.

  • It stresses stronger preparation culminating in teacher and administrator performance assessments for licensing (which sounds like the competency-based approach described in Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning).

  • On the need for "better assessments of learning-- representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop--and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing." And the potential to "move from an overemphasis on external summative tests, even as they become better representations of what students should know and be able to do, to a greater emphasis on assessment that can shape and inform learning."

  • They recommend a digital portfolio serves to track evidence of readiness for next levels of learning and work.

  • The framework is reciprocal and calls for weighted funding that reflects actual challenges (see Funding Students, Options, and Achievement).

While the CRPE frame has an over reliance on end of year standardized tests, this paper is overweighted on hand scored assessments and professional judgement. Neither adequately contemplate the contribution of the explosion of formative assessment embedded in games, sims, adaptive learning units, reading apps and writing assignments. Rather than obsessing over 100 items on a year end test, next gen gradebooks will automagically combine thousands of embedded and observed data points to help teachers accurately chart learning progressions. As our recent market research exposed, this is entirely possible but harder than it should be.

When we figure out how to better utilize the explosion of formative assessment that comes with a blended and personalized learning environment, it will be possible to use lightweight sampling strategies like NAEP tests to verify school and provider quality.

In the zone. Compared to CRPE, Darling-Hammond et al suggest more significant changes in measurement, capacity and policy. As noted last week, the way to test new measurement and accountability systems is by creating an innovation zone which could be implemented by an a statewide authorizer using performance contracting to engage districts, networks, and schools in experiments with new delivery strategies, talent development structures, and measurement systems. With a combination of pressure and incentives, a performance contracting approach could, over 5 or 10 years, become the primary delivery and accountability system for the state.

For more, see this iNACOL/CompetencyWorks paper: A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change


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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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