Accountability Explainer


By Education Week Staff — September 10, 2004 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Editor’s Note: For more recent information on accountability, please read our 2016 explainer, The Every Student Succeeds Act: An ESSA Overview, and our 2015 explainer, Teacher Evaluation: An Issue Overview.

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).

Center on Education Policy, “From the Capital to the Classroom: State and Federal Efforts to Implement the No Child Left Behind Act,” 2003.
Cross, R., Rebarber, T., Torres, J., and Finn, C. “Grading the Systems: The guide to state standards, tests, and accountability policies,” The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2004. Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In Jan. 8, 2004.
Education Week, Quality Counts 1999: Rewarding Results, Punishing Failure. Jan. 11, 1999.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2005: No Small Change, Targeting Money Toward Student Performance. Jan. 5, 2005.
Elmore, R., “Unwarranted Intrusion,” Education Next, 2 (1), 2002.
Fuhrman, S., “The New Accountability,” Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Policy Briefs, 1999.
Heubert, J.P., and Hauser, R.M. (Eds.), High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation, National Research Council, Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.
Linn, R., “Assessments and Accountability,” Educational Researcher, 29 (2), 2000.
Public Agenda, “Reality Check 2002,” 2002.
U.S. Department of Education, “State Accountability Plans Under the Consolidated Process,” 2005.

How to Cite This Article
Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2004, September 10). Accountability. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Opinion What’s Wrong With Online Credit Recovery? This Teacher Will Tell You
The “whatever it takes” approach to increasing graduation rates ends up deflating the value of a diploma.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Accountability Why a Judge Stopped Texas from Issuing A-F School Ratings
Districts argued the new metric would make it appear as if schools have worsened—even though outcomes have actually improved in many cases.
2 min read
Laura BakerEducation Week via Canva  (1)
Accountability Why These Districts Are Suing to Stop Release of A-F School Ratings
A change in how schools will be graded has prompted legal action from about a dozen school districts in Texas.
4 min read
Handwritten red letter grades cover a blue illustration of a classic brick school building.
Laura Baker, Canva
Accountability What the Research Says What Should Schools Do to Build on 20 Years of NCLB Data?
The education law yielded a cornucopia of student information, but not scalable turnaround for schools, an analysis finds.
3 min read
Photo of magnifying glass and charts.
iStock / Getty Images Plus