Building a New Accountability System for Truly Student-Centered Education

Elgart: If state leaders are serious about making sure every child succeeds, they must change their assessment tools to improve teaching & learning.

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Nearly a quarter-century ago, educators and policymakers developed an accountability system for public education built around end-of-year state assessments. These tests — which have been the core accountability tool required of states since the 2002 signing of the federal No Child Left Behind Act — have not aged well. They are used primarily for an outmoded purpose: to rate and rank schools and identify gaps in performance across student subgroups. There are much better ways of determining school quality than showing which are doing better or worse than others, as all need to improve. Equally problematic, simply detecting where equity gaps exist is not enough. Schools need support and technical assistance to overcome performance gaps.

Current accountability systems are built on a one-size-fits-all view of student progress and are divorced from improvements in instruction and learning. 

If the goal is to make schools more effective at helping every student achieve, states should adopt a new system that puts young people at the center. Any assessment should measure what they actually learn (and, moving forward, more of what they actually do) and report it periodically to educators who can use this information to adjust their teaching. It should also ensure that schools are evaluated periodically to address factors that affect student achievement, including engagement in learning, quality of instruction and leadership, and effective use of resources. 

The purpose of student and school evaluation should be improvement. Evaluation without the intent to make schools better is a waste of time, and improvement design without the benefit of evaluation is guesswork. Specifically, a new accountability system should require:

  • Data to improve student learning. Giving curriculum-aligned assessments in shorter testing periods throughout the year ensures that students are evaluated on what they learn, provides timely feedback to teachers about what aspects of the curriculum students have mastered and what they still need to know, and still produces enough cumulative data for policymakers to assess overall performance during the year. The results can be combined with other information to provide a more accurate view of a school’s performance and efforts to improve than a picture provided by overly simplistic and narrow test score rankings and ratings. The goal is to give teachers appropriate data so every child masters the subject matter.
  •  Independent third-party evaluations. These should include looking at how a school operates to see how it can get better, searching for root causes of problems that hinder learning and suggesting what behaviors, policies and programs are needed to effect change. While third-party, independent school evaluations are common in scores of countries, most U.S. schools do not take advantage of these supports. Providers including WestED, Cognia, American Institutes of Research, Insight Education Group and Education Resources Consortium provide third-party diagnostic school reviews, focusing on quality of instruction, curriculum, leadership and school environment — factors that research has shown makes a difference in student learning. For example, since 2012, Cognia has worked with 11 state departments of education to provide feedback and data on maintaining school improvements. In just three school years (2018-22), state education agencies partnering with Cognia for diagnostic reviews of their lowest-performing schools saw that 40% in South Carolina and 69% in Kentucky were no longer on state watch lists for low performance, and 56% were not reidentified as low-performing in 2022. Third-party evaluations provide a rich, comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of every school’s performance, which can give principals, teachers, staff and parents greater insight.
  • Focus on continuous improvement. Current efforts to meet federal Title 1 requirements are compliance-driven exercises that fail to guide and achieve meaningful improvement. Continuous improvement is not a plan, but an embedded behavior within the culture of a school. It requires a constant focus on the conditions, processes and practices that will improve teaching and learning by regularly identifying behaviors that must be maintained and those that must change. Curriculum-based, periodic assessments can be paired with professional development from state-funded assessment hubs that can help educators use the data to achieve this goal.

Such a system changes the role and purpose of state education agencies. While they now spend an inordinate amount of time, resources and effort designing, developing and implementing annual testing programs, in this new system, they will have the responsibility to ensure that schools and districts produce expected test results and have the guidance, technical assistance, staffing and data

infrastructure they need. Further, states will work with districts to set school expectations and direction. In this way, the state moves from test administrator to district improvement partner and coach. The state should identify and offer a list of approved providers with a proven track record of effectiveness and performance for assessment, third-party evaluation and improvement. 

Local education agencies will be expected to provide their states with annual evidence of ongoing improvement, including student performance, teacher learning and family engagement. Districts and schools should also be accountable for making sure teachers and principals know how to analyze and make instructional decisions and modifications under the new system. It is not safe to assume that because the data reveal performance gaps, educators will know how to address them. 

identify an issue, develop a plan, implement strategies and evaluate student progress. This professional learning could be part of the third-party independent evaluation or state or local requirements, but there must be a plan for initial and ongoing professional learning to prepare educators to handle data that come from more frequent and targeted assessments. Such evidence will be key factors in the state accountability system.

Efforts to improve teaching and learning have stagnated. However, with an accountability system that provides schools with timely, useful information illustrating what practices are working, what behaviors need to change and what remedies can best address specific challenges, states can guide and assist efforts to improve. Assessments that are embedded in the teaching and learning process, and provide essential information to educators so they can make changes long before students advance to the next grade, can strengthen what happens in classrooms for each child.

If state leaders are serious about ensuring that every student is successful, they must change their accountability systems to do just that.

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