Special Report

Demanding Results

By The Editors — January 11, 1999 6 min read

The pressure is on. After years of exhorting and cajoling schools to improve, policymakers have decided to get tough. States are taking steps to reward results and punish failure in an effort to ensure that children are getting a good education and tax dollars aren’t being wasted.

“Accountability,” the idea of bringing responsibility home to roost, has become the order of the day. Now that many states have adopted standards for what students should know and tests to measure whether young people are learning, they are looking to accountability as the lever to bring about improvements in classrooms.

But just how seriously are states taking this newfound commitment to results? And what are the challenges they’ll encounter along the way? Those are the questions posed in this third edition of Quality Counts.

Quality Counts ’99 details the findings of an exhaustive, 50-state survey of state policies on accountability. Based on those findings, states have completed only the first few miles of a marathon when it comes to holding schools accountable for results. Most have a long way to go in making their accountability systems clear, fair, and complete. Consider:

  • Forty-eight states now test their students, and 36 publish annual report cards on individual schools.
  • But fewer than half--19--publicly rate the performance of all schools or at least identify low-performing ones.
  • Only 16 states have the power to close, take over, or overhaul chronically failing schools.
  • Only 14 states provide monetary rewards for individual schools based on performance.
  • Only 19 require students to pass state tests to graduate from high school; only six have laws that will link student promotion to test results in the future.
  • And only two have attempted to tie the evaluation of individual teachers to how well students perform.

State accountability systems differ widely. So far, more is committed to paper than put into action. Texas and North Carolina come the closest to having all the components of a complete accountability system. These two states also posted the largest average gains in student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 1990 and 1996.

Yet despite the variability, a few things hold true:

  • Most states are relying heavily on test scores to help determine rewards and sanctions.
  • Most rewards and sanctions are focused primarily on schools and their performance, rather than on individual educators.
  • Though 19 states now identify low-performing schools, there is no agreed-upon strategy for fixing them.
  • Despite their threats to impose severe penalties, few states are ready or willing to use them.

Most educators also remain opposed to accountability as it is being pursued in many states. In connection with Quality Counts ’99, the opinion-research organization Public Agenda conducted a national survey on how school reform is playing out in communities.

Among its findings:

  • Most employers (77 percent) and parents (70 percent) think it’s a good idea for principals to work under contracts that could be terminated if their schools failed to reach specific goals. But most teachers (64 percent) say that’s a bad idea.
  • Employers (66 percent) and parents (62 percent) also support overhauling persistently failing schools. But 68 percent of teachers disagree.
  • And while 60 percent of employers and 53 percent of parents believe it’s a good idea to tie student performance to financial incentives for teachers and principals, 76 percent of teachers do not.

A special study on school report cards conducted for Quality Counts reveals a similar gap.

The study was conducted by Education Week, A-Plus Communications, a communications company based in Arlington, Va., and two opinion-research firms. Among its findings:

  • Most parents and other taxpayers in the focus groups had never seen a report card on individual public schools in their communities. Nearly half the educators had never seen such a report.
  • Participants generally did not believe, or were unsure, that they have the information needed to evaluate schools.
  • There is considerable dissonance between the information states now include in school report cards and what the public wants to know. School safety and teacher qualifications were among the top two or three concerns of parents, other taxpayers, and educators. But only 17 states now include information about school safety on their report cards, and only 16 include data on teacher qualifications.
  • Only one-third of the 260 participants in the focus groups thought test scores should be used as the main measure for holding schools accountable. In general, parents and other taxpayers rated test scores more highly than educators did.

Getting serious about holding schools and students responsible for results is a relatively new phenomenon. So, in this report, we also look at the leading challenges states face in devising workable accountability systems. And we identify some guidelines states might consider in designing their accountability policies.

Finally, we try to place accountability within the broader picture. Quality Counts continues to chronicle the progress--or lack of progress--toward education reform in the 50 states. Last year, on average, the states received a C in academic standards and assessments, policies to raise teaching quality, school environment, and the equity, adequacy, and allocation of education resources. A year later, that is still the case, yet progress is being made in some areas. Here is what we found:

  • Achievement: Since 1990, six states have shown improvement in both 4th- and 8th-grade mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  • Standards: Forty states now have standards in all core subjects, up from 38 last year. But only California earned a perfect score for its standards in all four subjects from the American Federation of Teachers. On the testing front, 34 states have now gone beyond multiple-choice tests to include performance questions in their assessment systems, up from 20 last year.
  • Teaching: States pushed hard last year to recognize the skills of effective teachers. For example, 23 states now provide financial support for teachers to seek national board certification, up from 13 last year; 13 provide pay supplements to board-certified individuals. States also continued to make progress in adopting standards, assessments, and induction programs for new teachers.
  • Climate: The news in this category is that 33 states now have laws permitting charter schools, up from 29 last year. Of such states, 22 have strong charter laws, up from 19 in 1998.
  • Resources: States remain uneven in whether they distribute money equitably, finance schools adequately, and ensure that the resources reach the classroom.

This edition of Quality Counts also analyzes the ratings systems that have been used to judge state standards. The analysis by Achieve Inc. identifies areas of consensus that should help strengthen those standards.

Quality Counts ’99 is divided Into four sections. “Rewarding Results, Punishing Failure” focuses on our special theme for this year. “Reality Check” reports on the Public Agenda survey on how standards are playing out in communities across America. “The State of the States” looks at student performance and more than 75 indicators of the health of each state’s public education system. “State by State” updates state policy changes in education over the past year, with a special focus on accountability. This section also includes our state-by-state report cards.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1999 edition of Education Week

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