Published Online: June 10, 2014
Published in Print: June 11, 2014, as Teacher, School Accountability Systems Shaken Up
Includes correction(s): June 12, 2014

Teacher, School Accountability Systems Shaken Up

States move to delay, alter test-based rating systems, including 'A-F' approaches rolled out in recent years

Many states are moving to delay or alter test-based accountability for schools and teachers, as tests associated with the Common Core State Standards head for their debut nationwide in the coming school year.

The changes—some proposed and some already in effect—are also taking place as states consider the status of their waivers from certain portions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Those waivers, in turn, have their own accountability requirements.

Increasingly, a consensus has developed about what categories of data are to be used for accountability purposes. For example, in a report issued last month, the Education Commission of the States found that all 50 states and the District of Columbia measure student achievement; all 50 states and the district measure graduation rates; and 42 states and the district measure student growth.

By contrast, the ECS reported that in 2002, the year the NCLB law was signed, the number of states that measured those indicators in school accountability was 32, eight, and 21, respectively.

But states still have to make their own sometimes-complicated decisions about where and when to give teachers and schools a reprieve from the ratings themselves, as well as when to impose consequences for performance that falls short.

"Once you start pulling the thread about these assessments, it's no longer about assessments," said Elliott Asp, the special assistant to state schools chief Robert Hammond of Colorado, where lawmakers have approved measures to delay the impacts of new tests on schools and teachers under the state's accountability system. "It's about all these other things."

State officials have stressed that plans to pause or restart certain accountability measures are temporary. But those statements don't necessarily amount to guarantees.

"The concern is, of course, is that if you're pausing these consequences, are you going to unpause them?" said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

A Reprieve and Revisions

In Florida, which in 1999 became the first state to institute a school accountability system using A-F grades, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, last month signed legislation that institutes a one-year reprieve from the impact of the high-profile school grades for the 2014-15 academic year.

Data from test scores and other indicators of school performance will still be collected and reported as letter grades. But there will be no resulting consequences for Florida schools for next school year, such as the requirement for schools with two consecutive years of F grades to institute a turnaround plan—conversion to charter school status, for example.

(Florida was originally slated to give the assessment from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers for its common-core test, but earlier this year selected the American Institutes for Research as its test provider.)

Florida lawmakers also altered the makeup of the accountability system itself. Among other changes, the graduation rates specifically for students who are deemed at risk (those who perform below certain levels on state tests in reading and math) will no longer be a part of the system.

Such changes were due to what Florida education department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said was a desire among officials to streamline the A-F system and make it more comprehensible to the general public.

Setting The Bar

Pushed by a variety of policy and political factors, states are looking to fine-tune—or even overhaul—the ways in which they grade schools and teachers.

COLORADO
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed a bill April 4 that prohibits 2014-15 school ratings from being influenced by changes in test scores from the prior year. The 2014-15 ratings will also consider factors such as student participation in assessments. Gov. Hickenlooper also signed a bill May 9 that allows districts, for the 2014-15 school year, to decide for themselves how much student academic growth will count in their teacher evaluations, if at all. (Districts can’t make academic growth count for more than half of a teacher’s evaluation, however.)

OHIO
In a bill sent to Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, late last month, legislators agreed not to publish certain school grades, and to hold schools harmless from certain consequences, for the 2014-15 academic year. Separately, lawmakers have approved legislation to give districts more flexibility over the extent to which student growth measures from test scores must be used in teacher evaluations.

NEW JERSEY
The state Assembly’s education committee unanimously approved a bill May 15 prohibiting student growth measures based on PARCC exam scores from being used to measure student academic growth or for school accountability purposes for the next two years or potentially longer. It would also create a commission to study PARCC as well as teacher evaluations.

FLORIDA
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed into law a “pause” of the A-F system’s impact on schools for the 2014-15 academic year. Data used for Florida’s accountability model, the first in the nation to use a state A-F grading system for schools, will still be collected and reported by the state in the form of letter grades, however.

The one-year "pause" is shorter than the one included in legislation proposed this year by state Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who is also the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Mr. Montford had proposed a similar pause in A-F accountability, but for three school years instead of just one. He had also sought through his legislation to create a task force that would recommend a new accountability system to take effect at the end of those three years.

Part of what motivated him to push for a longer pause and a new system, Mr. Montford said in an interview, was the steady stream of tweaks to A-F accountability in Florida in past years, such as the move last year by the state board of education to prevent any school from dropping by more than one letter grade for the 2013-14 academic year.

"The system itself has to be accurate, or it's useless, and it can be destructive. ... Just because some of us want to slow it down does not mean we don't want high levels of accountability," Mr. Montford said.

Inadequate or unreliable technological resources for the new assessments in Florida schools, he said, are the kinds of school- and district-level problems that could create problems beyond current expectation.

Pondering Pushback

Even where states have agreed to put accountability systems on hold as the transition to new tests and standards takes place, it doesn't necessarily represent a blanket timeout for struggling schools.

For the 2014-15 school year, changes in Colorado students' performance on state tests won't change their schools' accountability ratings from their 2013-14 ratings. The state is slated to administer the PARCC tests in the 2014-15 academic year and will consider other factors such as student participation in PARCC assessments when it comes to school ratings for that academic year.

The transition plan was approved under a law signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, this year.

Mr. Asp, special assistant to Colorado's education commissioner, said schools facing sanctions because of several consecutive years of low ratings could use improved PARCC scores to argue before the state school board that they shouldn't be subject to the sanctions, even though those scores won't otherwise count for 2014-15. In that way, he noted, the PARCC tests could actually help certain schools.

Colorado also has approved a reprieve for teachers on the use of student-growth measures in their evaluations. A different bill signed into law this year by Gov. Hickenlooper allows districts to decide on their own how much, if at all, student-growth measures based on the new PARCC tests will factor into those evaluations for the 2014-15 school year.

The goal, Mr. Asp said, was to "open up the window a little bit" without enacting earthshaking changes to the accountability system.

Members of the Colorado state board as well as Republicans in the legislature have expressed concerns about and opposition to PARCC. Asked about the possibility that the state's approach to altering its accountability system may buckle under political pressure or problems with the assessments, Mr. Asp said that after talking with educators and others, "we think it's a fair way to proceed."

Many states may find it easier to use common-core test scores from 2015 as the starting point for new student growth models, "rather than try to make the adjustment between the two," said Ms. Hyslop of the New America Foundation, referring to state's previous assessments and new common-core tests.

Related Blog

Other states are at different stages of considering how to shift their accountability systems to a new era of standards and tests.

After implementing a new A-F accountability system in the 2013-14 school year, Ohio is close to shifting course in a way that, like Colorado, gives more power to districts.

Last week, Ohio lawmakers approved a bill that would allow districts more flexibility in how to structure teacher evaluations for the 2014-15 school year and beyond, with potentially less emphasis on student growth. Separately, state legislators sent Republican Gov. John Kasich a bill that would delay the publication of certain grades for school accountability purposes. The one-year delay would be in effect in the 2014-15 school year, and provides schools safe harbor from certain consequences under the state's accountability system.

In New Jersey, the Assembly education committee approved a bill last month delaying the use of student-growth data based on the PARCC test from being used to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable.

And Mississippi got permission from the U.S. Department of Education to give schools the same ratings for the 2013-14 school year as they received for the 2012-13 school year.

More Flexibility

Federal officials have signaled recently that they're willing to be more flexible with certain accountability policies, particularly as they relate to teacher evaluations and waivers of key provisions of the NCLB law.

The federal department announced last month that it would give some states extensions of their NCLB waivers without considering whether those evaluations are fully implemented. That could give a large number of states peace of mind, but not necessarily a clear path to follow.

Even decisive action by state governments prior to this year hasn't proved a safeguard against concerns and actions from lawmakers.

In Louisiana, for example, a bill authored by Democratic Rep. Walter J. Leger III and passed by the legislature would extend a delay in using value-added data based on student test scores in teacher evaluations. Right now, the state plans not to use such data in evaluations for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. Mr. Leger's bill would extend that delay to the 2015-16 school year. (Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has said he is seeking a way to stop the state from using the PARCC test, which is what the state education department plans to administer for the first time in 2014-15.)

In a letter published May 10 in The Advocate, a Baton Rouge, La.-based newspaper, Mr. Leger said his bill ensures "high expectations for students and patient implementation in our schools."

"It's almost like common core's becoming real to a lot of people for the first time," said Victoria Sears, a research and policy analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, who has studied recent shifts in state accountability. "Overall, I think what a lot of states are doing right now is reasonable."

Vol. 33, Issue 35, Pages 1,28-29

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized an aspect of Colorado's teacher-evaluation system. The evaluations use student-growth measures.

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