School accountability: Where do we stand?
Monday, April 27, 2015
In the light of the raging debates on school accountability and the opposition to Common Core testing, a decade-old thesis has found new relevance. In "Does School Accountability Lead to Improved Student Performance?", Eric A. Hanushek and Margaret E. Raymond explored the relationship between school reform policy and accountability of schools with consequences for performance.
Developments that have strongly influenced the accountability issues include the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and an analysis of individual state achievement growth measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These have led to increased state and school district measures to rate their performances.
The thesis has reached an important milestone since it has singularly influenced major education reforms since it was published in 2005. When teachers and schools are held accountable for students' performance, grades have significantly improved. But more importantly, we've also seen how test results are ineffective in determining the real picture of student achievements and growth or potential.
If measured only by test results, schools are bound to suffer from adverse consequences — particularly in funding, which they can ill afford. Test results alone also do not take into account the demographic differences and the achievement gap that stems from them, leading to performance questions.
There should be definite accountability for the No Child Left Behind Act. Giving every American an educational opportunity is important, and every school and state is accountable for this. But whether schools should be held accountable for students' grades and percentile ranks is another issue altogether.
There is definitely a gray area here, and the resulting confusion and controversy have led to increased pressure on students to perform at the high standards set. For those who cannot take the stress and competition, dropping out or cheating (as we saw in Atlanta) seem to be more favorable.
This last bit is particularly worrisome. Any policy that discourages further education should be scrutinized thoroughly.
Some changes are happening around the country, but the pace is slow and often not clear. For example, a new amendment in the Senate version of Wisconsin's accountability bill for publicly funded schools shows promise. It pledges to drop controversial elements like creating a new state oversight board or allowing different types of tests for publicly funded private schools and public schools.
The Wisconsin bill highlights steps like revising school report cards to provide more information about their academic performance, as well as rating schools not just with letter grades but into one of five performance categories. It also allows the state superintendent to intervene in poor-performing public schools after consultation with the school board and district.
What it does not do, however, is deal with the problem of chronically underperforming schools — without which there cannot really be a comprehensive output for the district as a whole.
On the other hand, steps taken by California's State Board of Education have been more pragmatic and workable. First in the order is the launch of new tests that will involve a higher order of thinking skills but are detached from the high-stakes sanctions of the No Child Left Behind iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There will be multiple indicators of student outcomes and development of more learning opportunities, which will lead to a continuous improvement method.
This takes into account that high-quality assessments are necessary, but too much testing can take up too much school time and even lead to misuse of the results. California's approach will weigh all options and give every side a reasonable voice so that the school system can be strengthened without rancor or confusion.
Individualized tracking progress and identifying student learning problems will influence future actions and investments, and perhaps lead to more wholesome knowledge development. It remains to be seen how many other states will follow this example to bring positive changes in their educational policy.
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