Opinion
Federal Commentary

‘Accountability Plus’

By Bruce Fuller — August 08, 2006 9 min read

—Brian Jensen

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The simple idea that government can crystallize and monitor what every child should be learning—what’s commonly dubbed “standards-based accountability”—has led a charmed life. Few reform tools have proven so handy in boosting the achievement of students, not to mention the efficacy of state politicians.

The percentage of 4th graders deemed proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, climbed from 18 percent in 1992 to 36 percent in 2005. Reading-proficiency levels have inched up more slowly. Several major American cities, from Los Angeles to New York, have succeeded in raising the basic skills of children from across a mosaic of blue-collar communities.

When government works in such hopeful ways, it rightfully lifts the spirits not only of parents and kids, but also of political leaders. Bill Clinton heard this echo from voters in aggressively pushing welfare reform. Now, President Bush hopes to bank political capital by repeatedly laying claim to the “great progress” stemming from his version of standards-based accountability, embodied in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But as a policy driver, the notion of standards-based accountability may be showing its age. The coalition of opposites attracted by the No Child Left Behind Act’s tough-love message is weakening, in part because the policy model is yielding diminishing returns. Despite intensifying accountability pressures under the federally mandated reforms, NAEP scores now appear to have reached a dusty plateau. Reading proficiency among the nation’s 4th graders has failed to budge since the act was signed into law in January of 2002. The percentage of 8th graders deemed proficient in reading has in fact fallen over the past three years. Although math scores continue to climb among 4th graders, the upward trajectory is leveling off, and 8th grade math scores have reached the same dry flatlands.

The federal accountability strategy relies on a Calvinist theory of motivation: Praise rarely, punish often.

Governors and state schools chiefs continue to claim that their accountability reforms are bearing fruit. Yet the achievement trend lines derived from state testing often shift up and down, producing graphs that resemble jagged, saw-toothed mountain ranges. Many states, moreover, have set a low bar when defining which students are “proficient” in basic subject areas.

Texas education officials, for example, claimed in 2002 that 91 percent of the state’s 4th graders read at proficient levels, a figure that fell to 76 percent the following year, after the proficiency bar was raised. Meanwhile, the latest NAEP results for Texas 4th graders show that, in 2005, just 29 percent were proficient in reading, a proportion that has remained unchanged since 1998.

Or consider New Jersey, where the state education department reports that the share of 4th graders proficient in reading climbed from 62 percent in 1999 to 86 percent in 2005. According to the NAEP definition of proficiency, only about 36 percent of the state’s 4th graders were proficient in reading in 1999, with the number peaking at 39 percent in 2003, before again slipping downward.

Several sources, including this publication in its annual Quality Counts reports, have begun to reveal wide disparities in the percentages of students deemed proficient by federal vs. state authorities. As critics earlier had worried, the No Child Left Behind mandate that all children be proficient in basic subjects may have created a distorted incentive for states to set a low cut-point for defining proficiency.

A study released last month by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, shows that states’ habit of inflating achievement growth, when compared with NAEP results, is not new. In Iowa, for example, between 1994 and 2005, the average difference between the percentages of 4th graders meeting state vs. federal proficiency standards equaled 38 points in reading and 45 in math. The differences for California 4th graders equaled 19 points in reading and 24 points in math. (“California Study Questions Validity of Gains Under NCLB,” July 12, 2006.)

Massachusetts is the promising oddity among the states: The percentages of 4th graders there deemed proficient by state officials are almost identical to the federal estimates. It’s the only state, among the 12 studied longitudinally by PACE, in which parents or policymakers can check state or federal achievement data and find similar results.

Together, the 12 diverse states we studied reported that, since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the percentage of 4th graders proficient in reading had climbed by almost 2 points each year, on average. But corresponding NAEP data indicate a decline in the percentage proficient over the same three-year period. In math, NAEP scores continued to rise for 4th graders, but states reported an even greater rate of progress.

Stubbornly adhering to the notion of tough love alone— intensifying pressure on teachers and principals who often are laboring in dreary working conditions—will only further erode the already-fading effects of top-down accountability.

Independent of the wide gaps between where states set the proficiency bar and where NAEP does, the PACE report details the erratic nature of states’ own achievement trends. The jagged trend lines, even when derived from states’ own tests, make it almost impossible to know whether students are learning more or less over time. These erratic patterns stem from state officials’ tendency to change testing companies and move their proficiency bars.

Some may argue that the NAEP standard for proficiency is simply too demanding, or that it’s not aligned with state-specific curricula. But nine of the 12 states we studied reported that a larger share of 4th graders were proficient in reading than NAEP officials classified as at the lower level of “basic.” Nor have gains in basic performance improved at anything close to the rates alleged by state officials. Their habit of exaggerating gains has been detailed in other recent studies, including longitudinal work in other states conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Northwest Evaluation Association.

This epic struggle by states to demonstrate continued progress is understandable from a political point of view. But the deeper question it raises is whether standards-based accountability is losing its punch.

Even major school reform movements can, over the course of their lifetimes, resemble something akin to the process of making Jell-O. What begins as a hot, colorful fluid steadily cools down, only to emerge as a rubbery, coagulated blob. In the present movement, many educators and students have responded to the clearer articulation of learning standards, the political heat from state capitals and Washington, the public transparency of scores, and the rising count of classroom hours spent on test preparation. But after a period of hard-fought progress, the organization of schooling is reaching a new, more gelatinous equilibrium.

So, what to do next?

Without jeopardizing the school improvement baby, accountability hawks should admit that the bath water is getting cloudy. Thanks to independent studies by Stanford University scholars Martin Carnoy, Eric A. Hanushek, and Susanna Loeb, we know that students have demonstrated greater gains in states that mobilized stronger accountability programs in the 1990s. Abandoning the basic structure of standards-based accountability would thus be a step backwards.

But as test scores level off, the accountability coalition is struggling to hold the center together. Its members could help craft a more motivating agenda, one that might be called “Accountability Plus.” Stubbornly adhering to the notion of tough love alone— intensifying pressure on teachers and principals who often are laboring in dreary working conditions—will only further erode the already-fading effects of top-down accountability.

What would an accountability-plus agenda look like? First, adequate school financing would keep pace with the more-demanding learning standards pressed on the public schools. During the past two years, as President Bush has claimed remarkable benefits from his No Child Left Behind reforms, he has sought a 5 percent cut in discretionary education spending.

Even major school reform movements can, over the course of their lifetimes, resemble something akin to the process of making Jell-O.

Money alone will not renew the slowed momentum of accountability reforms. But dollars focused on improving teachers’ everyday working conditions, including the provision of time to harmonize instructional strategies and acquire more effective methods for motivating students, would be a huge plus, especially in high schools. Few corporate managers advance productivity by simply standardizing the front-line technology and reducing the need for professional judgment. Yet that’s what many accountability hawks continue to pitch.

The federal accountability strategy relies on a Calvinist theory of motivation: Praise rarely, punish often. Again, what major corporation relies solely on rules and sanctions to motivate staff members, ignoring incentives and richer collaborations? The No Child Left Behind Act specifies a sequence of harsher penalties for failing schools. Yet only last year did the legislation’s advocates even recognize the importance of rewarding growth in student performance. Similarly, teachers’ unions have resisted incentives for strong teacher performance, preserving, ironically, the factory-like conception of how to organize their members’ workplaces.

Giving principals greater discretion over teacher hiring and pedagogical innovation would complete Accountability Plus—but only if principals also were awarded equal financial means to attract strong teachers. Conservatives are naive to push school-level control, but remain silent on the importance of equalizing resources, including high-quality teachers, among schools within districts.

One way to improve working conditions would be to give principals the capacity to shape a more fulfilling instructional program, not simply be chained to one set in the far-away state capital, enforced through “teacher-proof” curricular packages. Many policymakers express abundant faith in creative principals and school-level discretion when it comes to charter schools. But first-generation accountability regimes continue to routinize regular classrooms and inadvertently purge inventive young teachers from moribund schools.

Congress, moreover, must decide how serious it is about the apple-pie cause of greater parental involvement, on which additional Title I dollars are being sprinkled. The message heard by teachers under the NCLB law is to keep your head down, keenly focused on raising test scores. As a result, there’s less time to look up and nurture stronger human relationships, with students and parents alike.

As Congress begins its review of the No Child Left Behind Act, the question that must be asked is this: Has Washington’s micromanagement of accountability added value to earlier successes through state-led efforts? At stake is the federal government’s credibility in trying to raise student performance and close achievement gaps. States’ tendency to exaggerate their progress highlights why federal leadership, on key fronts, remains so important.

But the coalition that pieced together the No Child Left Behind reforms had better consider a more resourceful, more motivating rendition of accountability. Otherwise, those urging that we mend it will be overtaken by those who say let’s end it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 09, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Accountability Plus’

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