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What Should New Accountability Systems Emphasize and Measure?

Washington

As accountability systems adjust to new standards, tests, and policy environments, advocates and K-12 leaders on a panel hosted by Stanford University's Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) shared a desire for multiple measures to be used in those systems. But they differed on the role of tests in the coming years.

The discussion was the last event at the day-long "Rethinking Accountability" conference. It took place one day after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced its support for a two-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences for teachers and students as schools shift to the Common Core State Standards and aligned assessments. That's an idea that many states have already turned into actual K-12 accountability pauses of some sort.

The panel showed that there could be a long way to go before any consensus is reached by those interested in, developing, and dealing with accountability systems, and before any clear blueprint emerges for broad use.

The discussion focused in part on the accountability system that a group of California districts have under their unique, joint waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. San Francisco Unified School District is one of the districts in the group, known collectively as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.

San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza emphasized that academic metrics, such as achievement gaps and graduation rates, were just one of three major areas that his district's accountability system stressed (see page 8 of the presentation at the link). He highlighted the other two: social and emotional data points (like non-cognitive abilities, dropout rates, and expulsion statistics), as well as school and district climate and culture. That last area emphasizes parent empowerment (not just parent engagement, Carranza stressed) and overall perceptions of schools and the district itself.

The priority, Carranza said, is to direct more attention to disadvantaged students, who have been historically been ignored or relegated to secondary status.

"We're not interested in system improvement. That's the wrong paradigm. We're interested in system change," Carranza told the SCOPE audience. He added that without maximizing the financial resources available to schools, high teacher-to-student ratios and other problems with similar roots would continue to hamper improvement. 

The panelists, who included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Achieve President Mike Cohen, and the Alliance for Excellent Education's Phillip Lovell, seemed to agree that tests should not tell the whole story of students' progress. "We can't only be concerned about scores on end-of-year tests in two subject areas," said Stanford University's Linda Darling-Hammond, the panel's moderator. 

But perhaps not surprisingly, assessments dominated the discussion. Weingarten continued her campaign to "decouple" the standards from the aligned assessments when it comes to accountability. In her view, putting a big emphasis on assessments improperly minimizes the role of education to generally prepare students for life as engaged public citizens. She stressed an accountability system that focuses on what students should know and be able to do, how to get the right teachers connected with the right resources, and other well-resourced social programs in surrounding communities to buttress classroom work.

"You can't just throw teachers the keys and say, 'Do it,'" Weingarten said.

Asked afterward to name states that take the right approach in using tests to judge teachers, she cited the high-profile example of California, as well as Montana

But Cohen, acknowledging that he was probably striking an unpopular note, stressed that large-scale assessments would be crucial for comparing student results around the country and holding schools accountable. He said that for policymakers, the biggest concern is the political movement to undermine and backtrack from using high standards and judging students on those standards.

"They see more conflict and less progress in the system," he said.

Focusing on higher standards and their associated assessments he added, ensures that what children learn isn't determined by demographics or geography. And both Cohen and Weingarten agreed that accountability systems originally grew out of the original federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 with the goal of promoting educational equity. 

Lovell raised a different issue, stressing that even when states make their accountability systems nominally more transparent and comprehensible to the general public, such moves won't necessarily make those systems are better. He cited one state, which he declined to name, that is using a five-star school rating system that, in fact, ensures the majority of schools get at least three stars. He said that's misleading for a state that had one of the lowest graduation rates in the country.

(The description of a state with a five-star system and a low graduation rate happens to match Nevada, which I wrote about two years ago concerning the five-star system in its NCLB waiver proposal. This year, Nevada was ranked dead last in graduation rate by a coalition of groups in the GradNation report.)

"What an A means varies tremendously from what one might think an A means," Lovell said.

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