Accountability Opinion

All Over the Map

By Margaret E. Goertz & Mark C. Duffy — April 18, 2001 8 min read
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With accountability as its central theme, the new administration has raised the stakes for educators around the country.

Two words—assessment and accountability—are resonating from the Oval Office and Congress into the offices and classrooms of states, districts, and schools nationwide, as both policymakers and educators work to improve student performance. With accountability as its central theme, the new administration has raised the stakes for educators around the country. In all of the 50 states, however, education reform initiatives encompassing high standards, challenging content, and accountability were already under way when President Bush took the oath of office.

Policy talk in the states had underscored the need for high standards to apply to all students, and that standards- based reform should emphasize high achievement for all children. So President Bush’s pledge that “no child will be left behind” has most educators and policymakers nodding in agreement. The question now becomes: How do we make this happen across the country?

The success of standards-based reform as a national policy is inexorably linked to state policy decisions. Many federal education programs of the 1990s were designed to be integrated with, rather than separate from, state and local education reform initiatives. For example, the provisions of the Improving America’s Schools Act, the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, gave states a new, prominent role in Title I. States are expected to establish challenging content and performance standards, implement assessments that measure student performance against these standards, hold schools and school systems accountable for the achievement of all students, and align their Title I programs with these policies. By aligning Title I with state standards-based reform policies, incentives to provide a quality education to poor, low-achieving children are now embedded in state performance and accountability systems.

For the past year, we have been studying all 50 states to see what each is doing in the realms of assessment and accountability. We have found that state responses to calls for performance-based accountability have not been uniform. State accountability systems do have common elements—assessments, standards, performance reporting, and, in most cases, consequences of performance. But states have found different ways to define what it means for schools to succeed, what indicators to include in their definition of success, and what the consequences will be. These variations are a reflection of several differences, including state demographics, political culture, educational governance structures and policies, and educational performance.

We have found that state responses to calls for performance-based accountability have not been uniform.

A look at assessment alone gives a sense of the variation across states. Forty- eight states use a state assessment as the principal indicator of school performance, while two leave the choice of assessment to the locality. Most states test students considerably more often than required by the 1994 federal law, which asks that students be tested at least once during each of three grade spans: 3rd to 5th grade, 6th to 9th grade, and 10th to 12th grade. Only 15 states, however, test students across consecutive grades, as proposed by President Bush. States report testing more students with disabilities, but have a variety of policies on whether and when to test English-language learners.

State accountability systems are supposed to create incentives for students, schools, and districts to focus on student achievement and improvement. The type and strength of these incentives differ considerably across states, however. Thirty-three states define the accountability systems; they set performance goals for schools or districts and hold them directly accountable for meeting these goals. These states have rewards for meeting and exceeding state goals, and sanctions for not. In 13 states, public reporting is the primary accountability mechanism, and a few states let the local districts define their accountability systems by establishing their own criteria for school performance.

Even among states with state-defined accountability systems, there is wide variation in school performance goals. State targets vary on the expected level of student performance (basic or proficient), the percentage of students that must meet the standard, and the time allowed to meet the goal. Nor is the measure of student proficiency comparable across states. States use different assessments aligned with different standards and set different cutoff scores for different performance levels.

Once states have identified performance measures and established performance goals, they must determine how they will measure annual progress toward these goals. Title I requires states to define what they consider substantial and continuous progress. Some states say schools must meet an absolute target or performance threshold; others require evidence of relative growth based on a school’s past performance; still others ask schools to narrow the achievement gap or reduce the percentage of students scoring in the lowest levels. Consequences for low- performing students, schools, and districts vary across states depending on the locus of authority (state vs. local) and the state’s willingness and capacity to intervene in low-performing schools.

With so much variation (as our full report outlines in detail), there are nearly 50 separate stories of interpretation and implementation. The states and federal government face some significant challenges as they continue to push for educational accountability.

Two accountability concerns are immediately evident. The federal goal of creating single and “seamless” accountability systems that would apply equally to all students has not been realized. Dual accountability systems exist in more than half the states, where Title I schools are subject to different measures of adequate yearly progress. In addition, a full one-third of states have not set specific, challenging goals to which all schools are held accountable. Some do not even identify low- performing schools outside of their Title I programs.

State assessments are the cornerstone of state accountability systems, and yet states face several issues in developing assessments that are valid and politically acceptable measures of student performance.

State assessments are the cornerstone of state accountability systems.

First, at a time when parents and policymakers are calling for nationally comparative information on student achievement, states must decide the appropriate mix of norm- and criterion-referenced test items in their assessment systems, and how to determine which items are aligned with state standards and should be used to hold schools and districts accountable for student performance.

Second, the federal government expects states to use multiple measures in their high-stakes accountability systems, but educators and policymakers do not have a clear understanding of what this means.

Do multiple measures mean assessing the same content in different ways, assessing a range of content with multiple tests, testing multiple grades in a school, or other things? Using multiple assessments with different formats and content coverage can send a mixed message to teachers about what and how they should teach and what they should be held accountable for and how.

Finally, policymakers will most likely face an increasing public backlash as parents challenge promotion and graduation decisions made solely on the basis of a single test.

Equity issues abound. States differ considerably in which students they test, under what conditions, and how policymakers and educators use or don’t use test results. Schools and districts need stronger incentives to address the educational needs of their lowest-performing students and of special-needs populations.

Few states require schools to narrow the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students, or hold schools accountable for having all groups of students meet the same performance standards. Closing the achievement gap will also require states to ensure that all students have comparable learning opportunities. As students are expected to meet more challenging standards, they need access to academic programs that address these standards. They need teachers with strong and appropriate content knowledge and skills to teach to diverse learners. And they need access to supplemental help as they move through the system.

These needs raise the underlying issue of capacity. Do states and districts have the capacity to support the enormous school improvement efforts needed to really help failing and struggling schools? States and districts need knowledge, human resources, and financial resources in sufficient amounts even to begin the task of turning around low-performing schools. The optimum mix and level of resources is unknown, but states and districts report having insufficient capacity to help the number of schools that have been or should be identified as needing improvement.

Federal and state leaders have shared a bold common vision: to bring educational improvement to all children in all 50 states. This goal has brought a shift in emphasis from educational inputs to educational outcomes, from procedural to educational accountability. This goal spoke of ensuring access to a quality education for all students. It said that high standards would be set for all children, and that support would exist to help schools reach those standards. While the vision has been clear, the guidance to achieve that vision has been weak. States clearly are reading the tea leaves and finding different answers.

This reality is not surprising; it reflects the tension that has always existed among federal, state, and local governments. The issue before policymakers and leaders is how to achieve their ambitious and noble vision within the context of our federal system. Building better and more uniform assessment and accountability systems is not enough, however. Equity and capacity issues form the core of this educational vision and should be the most critical measure against which future decisions are made.

Margaret E. Goertz, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is the co-director for policy and governance of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Mark Duffy is a researcher with CPRE at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, they wrote the CPRE report “Assessment and Accountability in the 50 States: 1999-2000.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as All Over the Map


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