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Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as Accountability in Small Schools

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Accountability in Small Schools

Devising an approach to accountability that fits small schools.

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Devising an approach to accountability that fits small schools.

Society has always expected much of its schools, often without really believing that educators can actually deliver on those expectations. Now, the widespread dissemination of test scores indicating that many students are not performing well has reinforced that skepticism. While most parents are pleased with the schools their own children attend, there is a widespread belief that schools in general are not doing their best to educate each and every child. In frustration, state legislators and educational policymakers have enacted new accountability provisions and have increased the scope and intensity of testing to support those provisions. The federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 requires such state accountability systems and links federal funding to much- expanded and more complex testing and accountability requirements.

Society has always expected much of its schools, often without really believing that educators can actually deliver on those expectations. Now, the widespread dissemination of test scores indicating that many students are not performing well has reinforced that skepticism. While most parents are pleased with the schools their own children attend, there is a widespread belief that schools in general are not doing their best to educate each and every child. In frustration, state legislators and educational policymakers have enacted new accountability provisions and have increased the scope and intensity of testing to support those provisions. The federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 requires such state accountability systems and links federal funding to much- expanded and more complex testing and accountability requirements.

Partly in response to the failure of many traditional schools, particularly high schools, to educate all children well, interest in small, alternative schools is growing. Most of these schools provide innovative learning opportunities and learning environments, particularly for students who have not done well in traditional schools or on traditional tests. As might be expected, these small schools typically approach testing and accountability in ways fundamentally different from those of traditional schools. Most small schools feel a special responsibility to be accountable to the community, families, students, and themselves for each one of their children. Not only are they concerned about not leaving any child behind, but their practice of personalizing their schools with advisories, learning plans, internships, exhibitions, professional development, and portfolios aims to ensure that no child is left unknown, as a learner and as a person.

There is a tension between these two approaches to accountability. Each approach makes different assumptions about schools, schooling, learners, and teaching, and has very different goals for an accountability system. While the federal system, and most state systems, employ a narrowly construed accountability scheme based primarily on high-stakes tests, small schools employ a holistic, one-student- at- a-time method. An important question is whether these two approaches can be reconciled. The federal system places high value on efficiency and settles for a single test score; small schools value a comprehensive assessment based on many and varied performance measures.

Can one system be devised that does not compromise the strengths of each? One system that produces valid and reliable information that all stakeholders will expect, accept, and respect? We think so. Small schools' accountability systems can point the way. The challenge is to see how the state system might support and sustain school-based accountability systems that could be audited to inform state judgments about each school's student, program, and organizational performance. The challenge is to devise one set of books that all could use.


We propose an approach that we believe better addresses the true goals of accountability and is especially appropriate for small schools. It is based on a "one set of books" approach that addresses the needs of federal and state accountability systems, as applied to small and large schools. We believe our approach would appeal to educators and citizens as well as to legislators and educational policymakers.

Several assumptions and understandings support our approach:

  • The essence of accountability is that individuals and organizations are able to give an account of their efforts and accomplishments. True accountability is that which enhances students' ability to give an account of their learning to themselves and to others. This holds true for schools as well. Society is best served by more "account-able" students, teachers, and schools.
  • The most effective accountability is that which emanates from within the individual or organization. Externally imposed accountability is likely to meet with substantial resistance that ultimately defeats its purposes.
  • Definitions of what constitutes success cannot be limited to performance on a test, particularly on a standardized test. Most policymakers and citizens value and expect a more holistic picture based on a variety of performances over time demonstrating complex learning.
  • Accountability systems should motivate students and schools to learn and to demonstrate their understandings and accomplishments.
  • Accountability systems should respect and support multiple ways of knowing about a child's efforts and accomplishments.
  • Information resulting from accountability systems should produce a deep understanding of individual and organizational performance.
  • Accountability systems should be simple and understandable. The information they produce should be expected, accepted, and respected by educators, policymakers, and citizens alike.
Small schools value a comprehensive assessment based on many and varied performance measures.

While the accountability systems employed by most small schools address these key principles and understandings, most current state systems do not. In fact, based on expert opinion and our own experience, we believe state systems are likely to actually diminish the capacity of schools to be accountable to students, their parents, and the community.

No one doubts that statewide test scores will rise over time. Schools will contort themselves to fixate on raising those scores. The essential question is whether those improved scores will constitute success, and whether a fixation on them will divert resources from achieving and measuring more worthy indicators of success.

Small schools offering highly innovative learning opportunities and learning environments are developing comprehensible assessment systems that serve students, teachers, parents, and others directly involved in teaching and learning. They are equally eager to have these systems serve the purposes of informing policymakers and the public about their efforts and accomplishments, particularly when those accomplishments are with and for students who have not done well in the traditional system or on traditional measures of success.

Small schools are developing and using student-centered assessments addressed to significant and challenging real-world standards. When student work is pegged to real-world standards as well as school and state standards, students are motivated to learn. There is a context for learning. The accountability discussion moves from merely developing literacy skills to developing a desire to use those skills in lifelong learning, that is, actually using the ability to read to learn.

We believe that a unified accountability system should have these design features:

  • The system must be student-centered, focused on the whole child, and highly individualized.
  • The system must be designed and operated from the bottom up as well as the top down.
  • The system should support authentic assessment that is integrated with learning.
  • The system should have a longitudinal focus, looking beyond high school at valued measures of success.
  • The system should be open to external review or audit to understand what is causing students' learning to improve.
  • The system should make enlightened use of technology to support all functions.

Such a system could serve the state well, but only by first serving well the student and his or her accountability to self, parents, teachers, and others. Key elements of such a system would include:

  • A learning plan for every student, showing real learning and achievement over time on core learning standards.
  • A documentation of students' projects through exhibition assessments in a student portfolio over four years.
  • An accounting of all courses taken at all higher education institutions.
  • A transcript for each student.
  • Attendance data on every student and the whole school.
  • A window into the system for parents to view their children's work.

Our proposed system provides a school portfolio of information about student, staff, program, and organizational performance. Such information is useful not only within the school, but also to external teams of evaluators and the public. It is possible, for example, to conduct random audits of a complete assessment package on a selection of students, examining learning plans, exhibitions, portfolios, and transcripts.


At the Met School in Providence, R.I., we have developed a student-centered system keyed to state standards that are linked to real work and provide an ongoing assessment of every student. We have produced a Web-based accountability system to support our one-student-at-a-time curriculum. The system provides a digital record of all major work and accomplishments for each student. It stores every major piece of work and every narrative assessment.

What is needed is a component to connect this Web-based system to the state accountability system, in a digital space where school staff members can submit student work to state assessors and have them judge whether the students' real work meets the state standards.

We need a much more enlightened sense of accountability, challenging every school to account for how and how well it serves each child.

In Rhode Island, as in many states, the state assessors are teachers who have been trained to score student work. The digital space would provide the opportunity to create a system that has one set of books: The work that is judged at the school by students, staff members, parents, and the community is the same work that is judged to determine the school's achievement of core state standards.

This additional, connected audit space could buy teachers and administrators into the state system, because they would see their students' actual work as real. They would no longer be teaching to the test, but giving information to state auditors (assessors) and getting back in return useful analyses of their performance—the actual work of students.

Small schools are interested in looking at their students' work and the work of the school over time. They want a system that has this capacity and supports the work at hand. This is not incongruous with state accountability systems. A longitudinal component would add substantial value to the system, as would a contextual component.

An expanded focus on a grades 9-16 system would support transition programs to continue following students' progress and be able to support them as they pursue all forms of postsecondary education.

Most small schools are especially concerned about the continuing support and success of their graduates. Thus, their accountability systems include attention to data that statewide assessment systems ignore: the number and percentage of graduates who apply to and are accepted to college; the number and percentage of graduates who attend college; the number and percentage of graduates who complete each year of college; the number and percentage of graduates who actually graduate from college; daily attendance rates; and the dropout rate.

In the event that a small school did not do well on the state accountability system, the school's faculty and the state's auditors would meet to determine what curricular, instructional, professional-development, and organizational changes should be implemented. At that time, the school might also provide other data, such as their graduates' performance in college, to show that they are in fact higher-performing and more successful than the state assessments are showing. The give-and-take in this accountability system would ultimately be to figure out how, as well as whether, students are successful.

Such data might in the long run be much more valuable to policymakers and citizens in judging whether schools are successful, and in determining what is causing students from these schools to be successful. Schools can be responsible for following each student. The state can be responsible for judging whether the work done in each school meets standards, and that systems are in place for watching each student's performance. External auditors can help school-based people develop their skills and understandings in this area.

More work needs to be done on identifying what kinds of student work, appropriately documented, is amenable to external auditing. Increased emphasis should be placed on helping schools do a better job of assessment and, in turn, using assessment information to design and implement better student learning opportunities and learning environments. Working on improving the technical aspects of the assessment enterprise is not worth doing unless and until we get the accountability design right.

We need a much more enlightened sense of accountability, challenging every school to account for how and how well it serves each child. Without investing in schools' account-abilities, the results documented by state testing systems are unlikely to be significant and sustained. To ensure that no child is left behind, we need accountability and assessment systems that ensure that no child is left unknown, by creating a system that not only tracks but supports each child.

Building the assessment and accountability system one student at a time will allow students to develop to their maximum, teachers to personalize learning opportunities and learning environments, and schools to watch each student's efforts and accomplishments over time. This is the accountability system we will need if we are to communicate to all stakeholders how and how well schools are delivering on society's expectations.

Elliot Washor is a co-director of the Met School—the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center—in Providence, R.I. Charles Mojkowski is an associate professor of educational leadership at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. This essay is adapted from their paper commissioned by the Education Commission of the States for the National Forum on Accountability.

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 40,42

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