“Accountability” became a buzzword during the decade-plus reign of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
The impetus of the act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was to “turn around” public education, seen as failing children for too long. The sweeping reform mandated annual testing in grades three through eight and once in high school. States that did not demonstrate “Adequate Yearly Progress” faced teacher dismissals and, at the extreme, being shut down.
The problem, said critics, was the narrow definition of success—based almost entirely on standardized test scores. The draconian penalties forced schools to focus their energy and resources on preparing students for testing, leaving no room to consider more thoughtful or innovative approaches to education.
With the law behind us, states may have an opportunity to devise more meaningful systems of accountability.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law at the end of 2015, states are required to track schools’ and students’ progress on a wider range of measures. They have some flexibility in selecting the measures, so progress is no longer defined by—and severe consequences are no longer tied to—the narrow Adequate Yearly Progress mark. Like NCLB, states’ new accountability systems must include scores from annual testing in math and reading. But another academic indicator is required, as is the graduation rate for high schools (also required under NCLB), English language learners’ proficiency, and at least one other measure of school quality or student success. States have a variety of options for this last indicator, which could be a measure of school safety, say, or of access to advanced coursework. But the indicators must be well-tested, comparable, and applicable statewide.
Some states are experimenting with more comprehensive accountability systems, modeling practices that others could imitate. Even before the law was on the books, several states received NCLB waivers so they could craft more thorough systems of accountability. Last year, 10 states at the forefront of those efforts formed the 51st State Working Group, a cohort that compares successes and hurdles in redesigning accountability. The group’s name references a framework devised by education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger to consider what education policies a hypothetical 51st state might implement to best prepare students for academic, personal, and professional success.
In two recent reports, the Learning Policy Institute and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education catalog some of the working groups’ efforts, “data dashboards,” that help track and diagnose areas that need improvement to broader measures of progress. In Kentucky, for example, an accountability system gives the most weight to measures of student success and achievement, but also factors in program reviews and professional growth. There is also an effort to reflect local needs in tailored approaches.
In California, eight school districts are adding measures of improvement and quality to create a more comprehensive accountability system. The resulting school quality report card prioritizes academics but also includes indicators of chronic absenteeism, expulsion rates, and social-emotional skills. However, some teachers’ unions condemned the effort for failing to seek educators’ input, which points to the importance of more inclusive decision-making when revamping accountability systems.
Other states are opting for additional measures of success that better track the development of critical thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity. For example, some states are using waivers to experiment with performance-based assessments designed to measure these skills. Removing the nearly singular significance from math and reading scores affords teachers and districts some flexibility in adopting instructional practices that encourage 21st century-appropriate learning.
If all goes as planned, ESSA will yield systems that comprehensively tackle improvement, responding to shortcomings with thoughtful and productive interventions. ESSA could indeed hold schools and districts accountable—a worthy cause that had taken on a more stigmatizing definition in previous years.