January 11, 1999
Vol. 18, Issue 17
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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.
It’s a very American set of ideas: Take responsibility for your actions. Focus on results. And reap--or rue--the consequences. And these days, it can all be summed up in one word: accountability.
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Almost without exception, the primary yardstick that states use when they want to judge schools and students is a test. Testing in American schools is ubiquitous. And every year, the stakes attached to such tests rise higher and higher. "If anything, the trend is to do more testing. To add more subjects, more grade levels," says Edward G. Roeber, the vice president for external relations for Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation Inc., a testing company based in Dover, N.H.
It’s all but impossible for an accountability system to say how well every student in every school is faring. In practice, experts say, many children with disabilities and those with limited English skills sit out state tests or stay at home on testing days--despite federal laws requiring their inclusion in large-scale assessments. The omissions have been a problem for years, and the problem is growing worse as schools feel increased pressure to win rewards or avoid sanctions based on test scores.
There are several steps states can take to make their assessments more useful instruction ally and less prone to corruption.
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Like most rural towns along the Mississippi Delta, Hollandale has two sets of schools. There are the private schools, attended by all but 47 of the town’s white students and anyone else willing to pay the tuition, and the public schools, for everyone else.
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As states zero in on the performance of individual schools, report cards are one of their most popular tools for communicating information to parents, other taxpayers, and educators.
Most states consider the reporting of information to be a central feature of their accountability systems. But it’s not always clear how to do that in ways that are useful and that promote change.
In Madison, Ill., they’re not used to making headlines. But in 1997, two unrelated events put the small, Mississippi River town of vacant warehouses, modest brick homes, and old churches on the map: the opening of a $35 million motor speedway and the announcement that two of its four schools had made the Illinois education department's worst-in-the-state list. The gleaming speedway opened to much fanfare last May and has been the talk of the racing world since. But Madison's other distinction--having half its schools on the low-performing list--tells a different story.
Grace Thomas wasn't satisfied with the reading scores she was seeing, and math scores on the high school graduation exam positively set off alarms.
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When nearly 60 percent of the would-be teachers who took Massachusetts' first-ever licensure exam flunked last year, the shock waves reverberated throughout the state and beyond. Teacher testing quickly became an issue in the gubernatorial race. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, the Republican candidate who went on to win the election, called during the campaign for all Massachusetts teachers to take competency tests-and lose their jobs if they failed.
In 1993, North Carolina eliminated tenure for administrators, a step several states have taken in the name of holding principals accountable for school performance.
Students of all grade levels in the nation's capital and most of the 50 states are being asked to show what they know on a host of new assessments. And the price for failure is high: In many cases, students may be held back or not allowed to graduate.
Firm yet friendly. That seems to sum up South Carolina's approach these days to improving its public schools.
When Jay Robinson ran the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina in the early 1980s, he learned something about motivation theory that stuck with him. Facing troubling absenteeism at the district's elementary and middle schools, the superintendent devised an incentive plan to get more students to show up. He persuaded a local amusement park to donate 5,000 free passes, which he in turn pledged to any student who finished the year with perfect attendance.
States, if they choose, can have a variety of tools a their command, including measures that a school selects itself. By enacting charter school laws and school: choice plans that enable families to vote with their feet, states can allow parents to exercise accountability directly. And states can permit exceptions to their basic accountability systems for schools that do not fit the mold.
Adopting a school accountability system that contains the right mix of standards, assessments, and consequences is a Herculean task for any state legislature. But that may prove to be the easiest part. Often, the real test is getting the public to accept the policies, which often involve dramatic changes in how children are educated and how they're treated when they fail.
Despite its tiny staff of three full-time employees and a modest yearly budget of $800,000, Washington state’s Partnership For Learning gets high marks for spelling out the ABCs of school reform to the public.
FOUNDATION SUPPORT: Coverage of specific topics in Education Week is supported in part by grants from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the CME Group Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the Noyce Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over the content of the articles that are underwritten by the foundations. Additional grants in support of Editorial Projects in Education’s data journalism and video capacity come from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Schott Foundation for Public Education. (Updated 1/1/2017)
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