SREB: State Accountability Systems Lack Cohesiveness

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School accountability programs in the South have come a long way in a decade, but many still suffer from a lack of cohesiveness, community input, and teacher preparation, among other shortcomings, a report says.

The 16-state Southern Regional Education Board released the report last week as part of a new effort to improve accountability in the region by studying the successes and failures of its member states, which stretch from Texas and Florida as far north as Delaware. The SREB is expected to release several follow-up reports over the next five years.

"We want to see what can be done to float the sinking boats," said James A. Watts, the vice president of state services for the Atlanta-based SREB and a co-author of the 29-page document. "There's enough experience out there that we shouldn't be making mistakes."

As a starting point, the report lists five "essential characteristics" of accountability systems that were agreed upon by more than 50 school officials in the region who contributed to the report's findings. The characteristics are content and student-achievement standards; testing; professional development; accountability reporting; and rewards, sanctions, and targeted assistance.

Coordination Needed

Despite the educators' agreement on the accountability essentials, state policymakers have not necessarily made the five characteristics equal priorities. And it's less than likely that these pieces are part of a clear, overall strategy, the SREB found.

"States look at this piece by piece," said Gale F. Gaines, the director of legislative services for the SREB and a report co-author. "The parts may be on the books, but may not be looked at as one whole accountability system."

Path to Accountability

In its new report, "Getting Results: A Fresh Look at School Accountability,'' the Southern Regional Education Board offers the following recommendations for state policymakers:

  • Effective standards for content and student achievement should be developed with a "consumer orientation'' that includes communication with teachers, parents, and the public;
  • Tests used in state accountability programs should assess what state content standards expect students to know and be able to do;
  • Local districts' central offices, higher education institutions, and state agencies should lend their expertise to better meet the unique training needs of local schools; and
  • Report cards on the performance of local schools and districts should be presented in a concise format that a variety of audiences can understand.

The report is $5, plus shipping and handling, from the SREB, 592 10th St. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30318 or by e-mail at [email protected].

The report goes on to identify professional development as the area that perhaps gets the least attention and funding from states.

Training for teachers and administrators, the report added, is "fragmented, lacks focus, and often has no direct relationship to state content standards and assessment of student achievement."

Some educators are also torn between teaching to state learning standards and pressure for students to do well on off-the-shelf exams which may require different learning approaches, the report contends.

"Either way, students and teachers get whacked upside the head for not doing well," said Bob Lumsden, an associate commissioner with the Kentucky Department of Education. "Teachers are saying, 'Get your act together.' "

But the South may not be so different from the rest of the nation where staff development is concerned, one school reform expert said.

"I think it is perhaps the least well-defined and least likely area to be on the radar screen of those setting policy," said Matt Gandal, the director of standards and assessments for Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization created by governors and business leaders to push for higher academic standards.

As remedies, the SREB authors say that staff development must be ongoing, convenient, and targeted. They also warn: "Generic solutions will not increase student achievement."

While the SREB report does not rate states, it does praise aspects of certain programs. For example, Florida, Maryland, and Texas are cited for reporting student results by race, ethnicity, and gender, "giving more depth to the picture." The report also notes that the Virginia Standards of Learning provide "clear and challenging standards" for grades K-12 in mathematics, science, English, history, social studies, and technology.

Work Ahead

As a follow-up to last week's report, the SREB will, over the next five years, convene state school officials to craft strategies for improving each of the five "essential characteristics" of accountability. First up will be rewards, sanctions, and targeted assistance, which are often fragmented pieces of state accountability systems, the report says.

And while the jury is still out on whether such actions help improve student achievement, according to the report, states have learned that fairness and consistency are essential to success.

"We want to see what state policymakers can do to reform schools," explained Mr. Watts, referring to the future studies.

Southern states' diverse approaches to accountability will also be reviewed. For example, the ratio of schools in SREB states that received rewards in the 1997-98 school year ranged from 2 percent of the schools in Georgia to about 40 percent in Kentucky.

Mr. Gandal said the SREB findings in those areas could prove helpful to other states. "True accountability for results is only getting attention, that is to say that something is in place, from half of the states," he said.

In other report findings, the SREB authors say many states have set content and achievement standards without adequately reaching out to parents and teachers. And while Texas and Virginia found that involving broad sectors of the public made for a lengthy and controversial process, "it appears that most teachers, parents, and members of the community understand and support the new standards," the report says.

Failure to provide a credible and reliable testing system, as well as clear and useful test results, can also doom a school accountability system, SREB says.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 13-14

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as SREB: State Accountability Systems Lack Cohesiveness
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