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Two Unintended Legacies of School Accountability Policy

For another week, Rick will be out discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he's away, several of the contributors are stopping by and offering their reflections on what we've learned from the Bush-Obama era. In this final week of guest bloggers, you'll hear from Deven Carlson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. He'll be sharing thoughts on the evolution of testing and accountability, the unintended consequences, and whether we can ever get testing and accountability "right."

Politicians promised us that combining standards, testing, and accountability would transform our nation's education system. This policy solution was going to ensure that every state would have world-class standards, that every classroom would be staffed with a highly qualified teacher to help students reach these standards, and that holding schools accountable on the basis of assessment results would guarantee that every single student would be proficient in reading and math. Obviously, this rhetoric was chock-full of gross overpromises. At the time, policymakers likely viewed these exaggerated promises as entirely unproblematic, perhaps even beneficial—they were setting high expectations for each and every student.

Looking back, however, it is clear that policymakers' tendency to set unrealistic goals was, in many respects, quite counterproductive. By going to great lengths to establish such lofty expectations for accountability policy, its supporters were effectively ensuring that it would ultimately be judged a failure—no conceivable education policy could come close to achieving the goals that supporters initially set out. Even though any fair reading of the research literature makes clear that accountability increases test scores, the size of those gains pales in comparison to the expectations that policymakers established. Taken on the terms of its proponents, accountability policy was bound to fail. And most folks believe it did.

But what if we don't take it on those terms? What if, with the benefit of hindsight, we consider accountability policy in terms of its lasting legacies? What might that look like? Interestingly, the aspects of the accountability era that seem likely to exert long-term influence on our education system were hardly mentioned at the outset of the era—they are unintended legacies. I see two major unintended legacies of the accountability era, one that I judge to be a net positive and the other not.

First, the accountability era sparked the creation of state and local data systems and increased capacity to analyze the data in those systems. These data systems were initially considered as little more than a means to an end, containing the information we would need to hold schools and districts accountable. With the passage of time, however, these data systems have come to be recognized as a valuable end in and of themselves. They've been instrumental in shining a spotlight on the performance and outcomes of different student groups. Even with the emphasis on sending power back to the states in negotiations over the Every Student Succeeds Act, efforts to scale back data collection and subgroup reporting requirements were a complete nonstarter.

These data systems have also facilitated something of a "golden age" in education policy research. We've learned an incredible amount about our education system in the past 15-plus years, with recent research demonstrating the powerful effect that same-race teachers have on students, the importance of teachers in shaping all aspects of students' lives, and the value that families place on different school characteristics, among innumerable other topics. This significant knowledge accumulation would not have been possible without the data systems that emerged from the accountability era.

Although I view these data systems as a net positive, they haven't been all peaches and cream. To the chagrin of those who value a well-rounded education, they enabled the hyper-focus on reading and math scores that defined policy discussions during the accountability era. And they've contributed to misguided efforts to frame any and all educational decision-making as evidence-based. Don't get me wrong, evidence is a hugely important consideration in policy decisions. But many issues in education are ultimately value-based, and the tendency to try to debate these issues entirely "on the evidence" prevents us from discussing differences in underlying values—this sort of discussion is a vital component of democratic debate. So, there are very real downsides to these data systems, but I believe the benefits of these systems easily outweigh the downsides.

The second unintended legacy of the accountability era is decidedly less positive. Accountability policy incentivized schools and districts to implement at least three counterproductive policies and practices. First, it contributed to the substantial increase in testing that occurred over the past 15-plus years, ultimately reaching a level that many folks believe to be excessive. Second, many schools significantly narrowed their curriculum, scaling back art, music, and social studies to increase instructional time in reading and math. Third, teachers were incentivized to select pedagogical practices and focus instructional efforts in order to maximize test scores.

As rigid accountability systems become a relic of the past, schools and districts will continue to be faced with the task of weeding out the counterproductive, accountability-induced policies and practices. Should they scale back testing? Rebalance the curriculum? It will take a long time for schools to fully rid themselves of the undesirable vestiges of the accountability era, likely much longer than it took for these practices to ensconce themselves in school culture.

Together, these unintended legacies illustrate the difficulty—impossibility, even—of predicting the full range of policy effects. The intended legacies of a policy often don't come to pass, while aspects of a policy that policymakers saw as a means to a broader end, or didn't even anticipate at all, end up as the factors that we appreciate or impugn 20 years down the line. They are the unintended legacies.

Deven Carlson

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