Accountability—the idea of holding schools, districts, educators, and students responsible for results—has become the most-recent watchword in education. In more and more states and districts, policymakers are moving to reward achievement and punish failure in schools, in an effort to ensure that children are getting a good education and that tax dollars aren't being wasted. "Accountability for student performance is one of the two or three -if not the most- prominent issues in policy at the state and local levels right now," says Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education (Quality Counts, 1999)
The push for accountability has grown out of a common perception that states traditionally monitored the "inputs" in public education—such as the number of books in the school library or the number of computers in the classroom—but paid too little attention to performance. In the 1980s, the nation's governors proposed a kind of "horse trade": The state would provide more flexibility in how schools operated, as well as more money for schools, if educators would agree to be held more accountable for student achievement.
The "new" accountability, enshrined in federal law since the mid-1990s and a major emphasis of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, focuses on student performance, schools as the unit of improvement, public reporting of achievement results, continuous improvement, and consequences for schools attached to student performance (Fuhrman, 1999). Each state is required, under No Child Left Behind, to submit an accountability plan to the U.S. Department of Education. By 2005, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had submitted and received approval for their individualized plans, and are currently implementing these plans in their schools (Department of Education, 2005)
As of the 2004-05 school year, according to Education Week's Quality Counts 2005 report, all 50 states and the District of Columbia publish report cards on school performance, based largely on test scores. Forty-five states and the District disaggregate student performance data on report cards, highlighting specifically how minority, low-income, special education, and English-language learners perform on state tests.
Beginning with the 2003-04 school year, under the No Child Left Behind Act, all states are required to publicly rate schools on whether the schools have made "adequate yearly progress" toward meeting performance targets. . According to data collected by Education Week, at least 19,644 schools did not meet those performance targets for 2003-04.
But while all states now have some kind of rating systems in place for all of their schools, many do not assist all low-performing schools or hold all schools accountable for results by imposing consequences on persistently failing schools, or providing rewards to high-performing or improving schools. For 2004-05, 36 states assist all schools identified as low-performing (regardless of whether they receive federal Title I funds). Twenty-nine states have the legal authority to close, take over, replace staffs, or apply other penalties such as converting to charters any schools they have identified as failing (Quality Counts 2005).
In practice, however, the push for accountability has led to some unforeseen problems. A 2004 study by the Thomas Fordham Foundation and AccountabilityWorks, which evaluated accountability systems in 30 states, gave states "mediocre" marks for the extent to which accountability systems were based on solid academic standards and tests that matched individual state standards (Cross et. al., 2004).
Furthermore, a "capacity gap" exists in states, districts, and schools. Low-performing schools are the least capable of turning themselves around. Meanwhile, states may not have the resources to intervene in every school whose performance is not up to par (Elmore, 2002). With strict timelines and mandates for improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act, some education policy experts are concerned that states will have incentives to lower standards and expectations for students in order to meet prescribed goals (Center on Education Policy, 2003).
States are not only seeking to hold schools more accountable for results, increasingly they are also holding students accountable for individual performance. According to data collected for Quality Counts 2005, for the 2004-05 school year, students in 21 states are required to pass a test to graduate from high school, and, eight states tie student promotion to test scores.
Opponents of such practices are concerned about the validity and reliability of making high-stakes decisions that often are based on performance on single exams (Heubert and Hauser, 1998; Linn, 2000). Critics also argue that the focus on high-stakes testing will narrow and impoverish the curriculum, encourage cheating, and fall most heavily on poor and minority students, who traditionally have done least well on standardized exams. Opponents of such testing also complain that states have rushed to hold students accountable before the states have put in place the curricula, instruction, teacher training, and other resources that would enable young people to meet the higher standards.
Some states, such as Florida and New Mexico, are also attempting to hold teachers accountable by tying their evaluations and pay to students' scores on state tests (Quality Counts, 2005). But many educators and teachers' unions contend that approach is unfair because too many factors contributing to student performance are outside teachers' control.
For now, most state policymakers say they are committed to the accountability agenda: setting higher standards for students, measuring whether they are learning, and then providing incentives in the form of rewards and punishments for schools and students to achieve. Opinion polls also show that the public and educators continue to largely support the general principles of high standards and accountability for results (Public Agenda, 2002).