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E.D. Creates a 'CAT Scan' To Help States Assess Schools

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Washington--The Education Department last week released a guide aimed at helping states enhance their systems for holding schools and districts accountable for student performance.

States need better information about performance and better methods for acting on such information, officials said, to satisfy the growing demands of legislators for ways to ensure "a return on their investment."

Chester E. Finn Jr., the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, offered a medical analogy for the suggested evaluation methods. "If you are going to the doctor, you want the doctor to have on hand a thermometer, a blood-pressure scan, and, if something is seriously wrong, a cat scan," he said.

"What we are offering here," he continued, "is the educational equivalent of a cat scan. It's terribly important that education doctors have access to such things."

'Responsible and Responsive'

The report, "Creating Responsible and Responsive Accountability Systems," urges states to measure student achievement with a variety of indicators, not simply with test scores.

And data on school and district performance should be published in language understandable to the public, it says.

In addition, it recommends that states use such indicators to identify high- and low-performing schools, and consider a broad range of incentives and sanctions to encourage high performance.

"If state intervention is considered appropriate," the report says, states should give low-performing districts a chance to improve before intervention.

South Carolina, which provides monetary rewards for high-performing districts and the possibility of intervention for those with low measures on a range of indicators, has the best accountability system, according to Mr. Finn. But several other states employ elements of effective systems as well, he said.

Noting that 33 states are considering changes in the way they collect and report data on student and school performance, the report predicts that it could "encourage its own obsolescence."

The report was prepared by a 27-member task force appointed by the department's office of educational research and improvement. The panel included representatives from 10 states and five national organizations.

'Very Hot' Issue

Based on reports from the participants and interviews with officials from other states, the report also includes data from a 50-state survey conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Preliminary versions of the report were discussed last summer at meetings of the Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures. (See Education Week, Aug. 3 and June 22, 1988.)

The issue of accountability is "very hot in state legislatures," observed Terry Peterson, chairman of the panel and executive director of South Carolina's joint business-legislative oversight committee.

State lawmakers will approve proposed increases in state education spending, Mr. Peterson said, only if they are given "better evidence of a return on their investment."

Although 46 states collect data for accountability purposes, the report says, the uses of such data vary widely. It notes, for example, that performance data "trigger other state actions aimed at improving education" in only 26 states.

Uses Beyond 'Reporting'

State accountability systems can be effective only if they are "used to improve schools," it argues.

"Reporting to the public is a critical mechanism for ensuring that schools are answerable for their performance," it states. "But if the use of accountability data stops with newspaper articles or reports to parents, attempts to remedy poor performance or sustain high performance may be haphazard, ineffective, and short-lived."

The report notes that states must devise systems based on their own needs and political traditions, but it offers "guidelines" for improvements.

Copies of the report (stock number 065-000-00352-0) are available for $4 each from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402; (202) 783-3238.

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