Accountability Commentary

Accountability Helps Students at Risk

By Herbert J. Walberg — April 30, 2003 7 min read
Contrary to earlier fears, systems of goals, examinations, and incentives not only help students in general, but at-risk students in particular.

Contrary to earlier fears, systems of goals, examinations, and incentives not only help students in general, but at-risk students in particular. Educators, policymakers, and even scholars have overlooked the significance of several scholarly reports that, when taken together, make a strong case for accountability.

Today’s accountability and systemic reform can be traced to Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (University of Chicago Press, 1949) by Ralph W. Tyler, an education adviser to several U.S. presidents, an original proposer of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and sometimes known as the founder of 20th-century curriculum theory. His 83-page booklet set forth the “Tyler Rationale": Curriculum, instruction, and assessment should be articulated or aligned with educational goals.

Aristotle and common sense inform us that our efforts should be rationally related to our goals. Confirming and extending this point, the Cornell University scholar Edwin A. Locke concluded that goals focus our attention, mobilize our efforts, increase our persistence, and encourage our thinking about optimal strategies (American Psychologist, 2002).

Locke finds that nearly all laboratory and field studies show that setting specific, challenging goals leads to higher performance than setting easy goals, “do your best” goals, or no goals. His findings coincide with those from national surveys by Public Agenda of citizens and students themselves, showing that these groups believe higher standards, with tests and consequences for performance such as promotion and graduation, promote achievement.

James Kulik’s syntheses of dozens of studies show that frequent tests substantially promote achievement (International Journal of Educational Research, 1989). Weekly or even more frequent classroom tests provide teachers with information useful in planning their lessons. Frequent tests encourage students to be prepared for classes. Even in themselves, tests can be a powerful source of learning: Regular essays and feedback, for example, help students not only comprehend subject matter but become better writers.

Accountability, moreover, is arguably the most cost-effective feature of K- 12 education. Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby has estimated that state payments to commercial firms for standardized testing, standards- setting, and reporting in 2000 totaled $234 million (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2002). Averaging $5.81 per American student, accountability was a tiny fraction of the average per-student spending of $8,157.

But do state and national accountability systems work? Cornell University economist John H. Bishop has long studied and found positive effects of externally graded examinations geared toward prescribed subject matter. In a 1996 article in the International Journal of Educational Research, he finds worthwhile effects of the Advanced Placement, New York State Regents, and Canadian provincial examinations. Made publicly available, the reported results allow citizens, policymakers, educators, parents, and students to assess achievement standings and progress.

Recently extending Bishop’s findings, Ludger Woessmann of the Institute of World Economics carried out perhaps the largest and most sophisticated causal analysis of national achievement ever made. Using data from 39 countries that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, he found that both the rich and the poor nations in which students learned the most employed external, curriculum-based examinations, and policymakers closely monitored the results.

Such examinations cover uniform subject matter in humanities, sciences, and other subjects. The exams are graded by educators other than the students’ own teachers, and students have little incentive to challenge their teachers about course content and standards. Rather, students and teachers work together toward the common goal of meeting examination standards, which often have high stakes. Because the exams and courses are uniform, teachers can concentrate not on what to teach, but on how to teach. With common subject matter in previous grades, teachers can build on what students have previously been taught.

The tough Standards of Learning examinations in Virginia resulted in increased test scores of all social and ethnic groups, according to Standards Work, 2002 (www.goalline.org). The testing program also increased the numbers of students enrolled in rigorous International Baccalaureate programs and taking Advanced Placement courses.

Uniform curricula, standards, and examinations can have particularly beneficial effects on poor and minority children, since they more often move from school to school. A uniform system makes it more likely that their teachers in new schools know what they have been taught, which enables them to build upon migrant students’ past learning.

From a national survey of about 15,000 students, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated in 1994 that 17 percent of American 3rd graders had changed schools three or more times since beginning school; another 24 percent had changed schools twice. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students were more likely to change schools frequently than were Asians and whites. Inner-city and low-income children were also more likely than others to change frequently. Regardless of income, frequent changers were more likely to repeat grades and score below grade level on standardized tests.

Data on several tens of millions of children 8 to 17 years old in the 1970 U.S. Census revealed below-grade placement associated with interstate migration. Migrant children were especially likely to be below grade if their parents were not college graduates. The GAO report explained these effects as the likely consequences of necessary adjustments to new curricula and teaching practices.

Is there direct evidence of beneficial accountability effects? Craig Jerald of the Education Trust found, in a 2001 report, 4,500 high-poverty and high- minority schools in 47 states and the District of Columbia that performed among the top one-third of schools in their states, often outperforming predominantly white schools in advantaged communities. These schools educated about 1.28 million low-income students and an overlapping population of 564,000 African-American and 660,000 Latino students. Among the distinctive features of these “outlier” schools were the following:

(1) Use of state standards to design curriculum and instruction, assess student work, and evaluate teachers;

(2) Comprehensive systems to monitor individual student progress and provide extra support to students as soon as needed; and

(3) State accountability systems that have real consequences for adults in the schools.

Similarly, Gordon Cawelti of the Temple University Laboratory for Student Success (Educational Research Service, 2001) found that similarly successful districts:

  • Nurtured high expectations and focused on achievement results;
  • Aligned curricula and instruction to state standards and tests; and
  • Provided frequent testing, practice, and reteaching for students in need of them.
Accountability increases the likelihood that at- risk students won't miss crucial knowledge and skills they need for learning and, we can hope, life beyond school.

In the most rigorous U.S. accountability study to date, Stanford University economists Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb examined the relation of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress to the strength of state accountability systems. (“Researchers Debate Impact of Tests,” Feb. 5, 2003.) Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Florida were rated highest, since they had extensive testing, school report cards, high school exit examinations, and consequences for school staffs. Stronger accountability led to higher NAEP- score gains, particularly those of African-American and Hispanic students.

Contrary to prevalent hand-wringing, stronger accountability did not reduce promotion and raise dropout rates, but raised measures of both “lower order” achievement and advanced proficiency. Surprisingly, the Stanford group found that strong accountability reduced teacher turnover, a fact suggesting that standards-oriented, goal-directed schools are not only more productive but also more pleasant work environments than schools where whims reign.

Strong accountability states that report scores for minority groups and students in poverty provide useful information about students with special needs or those who are ill served. In particular, such information is useful to policymakers considering failing schools that may require close attention, remediation, or probation.

Encouraged by the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, policymakers are closing and chartering repeatedly failing schools. They are providing parents the choice of sending their children to successful schools. Given the seemingly unyielding problem of student achievement and the glacial pace of enacting the 1949 Tyler Rationale, such interventions convey urgency.

Accountability for meeting common standards not only provides information for rational decisionmaking. It also increases the likelihood that students, particularly at-risk students, won’t miss crucial knowledge and skills they need for subsequent learning, and, we can hope, for life beyond school.

Herbert J. Walberg is the principal investigator at the Mid-Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success, a university scholar and professor emeritus of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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