States Opinion

How State Accountability Systems Affect Student Learning

By Contributing Blogger — March 07, 2016 10 min read
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This post is by Adriana Martinez and Joey Hunziker, Senior Associates with the Innovation Lab Network at CCSSO

It’s 1:00 pm on a Wednesday afternoon in late June, 2020. Maria just spent several hours rehearsing her capstone presentation that she is about to give. She shouldn’t feel nervous, though, because she’s already given this presentation to a panel of teachers and students. But this time it’s different. This time, the audience will include her parents, community members, and members of the local business community. When she received her initial feedback from her teachers and fellow students, she immediately regretted her decision to invite her parents and community members to the final presentation. They gave her a lot of positive and constructive feedback, but asked her challenging questions that required her to revise her work and push herself further than she had originally done. Maria worked through the feedback, extended her research and revised part of the presentation’s infographics, giving her teachers and fellow students insight into her project and the internship where she has worked for the past nine months. This final audience of parents and community members will prove to be the toughest yet.

You see, the idea for her capstone project originally stemmed from them. Maria interned at one of the prominent local tech companies working to build apps for several online marketplaces. Maria discussed with her teachers and friends the work she was doing at her internship, but she always struggled to explain it to her parents and their friends--they didn’t get the technology, because they didn’t use it. And they didn’t think that something done outside of school should be counted as school. After venting her frustrations to her teachers and talking to other students, she decided to focus her capstone project, which was required to graduate, on how tech companies can build bridges and connections to the Hispanic community of her town in order to expand access to those resources.

Maria set out to facilitate a series of roundtables with representatives from the Hispanic community and the local tech companies. Through careful planning and coordination with her teachers and Extended Learning Opportunities coordinator, Maria devised a project that she was proud of and that would solve a real challenge in her community. Maria aligned her project with six main learning goals, or competencies, which would demonstrate to her school how she has grown academically in knowledge and skills through this process. For example, the business roundtables would help her build and demonstrate a goal around public speaking, leadership, and collaboration. The final written report, which included statistical and demography work, would give her the chance to demonstrate key skills in mathematics, critical thinking, and writing.

At first, Maria hypothesized that tech companies needed to prioritize and invest in translating services, but through the roundtables, the community identified a wider array of needs. Maria determined that businesses needed to do much more than translate. Many of the references, imagery, and “slang” used in marketing outreach have cultural references that are often foreign and unrelatable for the Hispanic community. The roundtables helped Maria and the participating businesses understand how to cater their products to the Hispanic community. This final presentation, with her parents, community, and local businesses, would be an opportunity for Maria not only to show the importance of her project, but to demonstrate to her parents and the community that this activity, focused on a real-world problem outside the school day, does translate into what they traditionally think of “school.” The pressure was high, and her nerves on edge, but Maria leapt at the challenge and never looked back.

Maria’s journey through her schooling hasn’t always been easy, but it was dramatically different from the experiences of those who came before her. And it all changed after December 2015.

Why Does Maria’s Story Matter?

Maria is fictional; her story is not. It is an example of what is happening in several schools across the country today (for specific examples, please see the Next State of Learning). Our challenge is we have to shift these schools--and stories like Maria’s--from being the exception to the norm.

Today, that challenge is pressing. It is difficult to change a system; it is even harder to change a system when the policies and regulations underpinning it disincentivize the changes you want to see within the system. For example, many traditional schools have found it difficult to implement innovative approaches to education, such as personalized learning and competency-based education, because they face barriers in their state’s accountability system.

Now every state has the opportunity to remove those barriers because of new flexibility and authority in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Maria’s experience in school is an example of the fundamental shifts in teaching and learning that states across the country--including those participating in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) Innovation Lab Network (ILN)--are already working toward. With the new federal law, we hope these can become a reality in every state.

Passed in December 2015, ESSA differs from its predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), in that it provides states a greater role in the design and implementation of education accountability systems. The new law allows states to move away from the “one size fits all” approach of NCLB to a model of state-driven accountability that could build local engagement and ownership of student learning. Most importantly, ESSA provides the opportunity for states to rethink how their accountability systems can foster and scale new models for teaching and learning--so Maria’s story can become the new normal. States can enhance their systems to make sure students have engaging, relevant learning experiences that prepare them for college, career, and life. The question states must address now is: what are the design elements of an accountability system that support this type of learning?

Several ILN states explored four key design elements throughout 2015, which they will work to incorporate in various ways into the design of their new accountability plans under ESSA. These design elements have the potential to fuel personalized, competency-based teaching and learning in more states, getting us to a vision of student-centered deeper learning that is supported and incentivized by state accountability systems:

  • Dashboards with Multiple Measures
  • School Quality Reviews
  • Performance Assessments
  • Professional Growth & Capacity Systems

We’ll talk about two of those elements in this post.

Data Dashboards with Multiple Measures

Maria’s story is a good example because her school not only required her learning to be aligned to academic standards, but it also created opportunities for her to learn in engaging ways where she could apply what she learns in real-life situations. Her school emphasized non-academic factors that many education policy leaders believe are important, such as a positive school climate, student engagement, and social-emotional learning. Meaningful learning goes beyond the gathering and retention of knowledge and academics; it involves real-world application of that knowledge to other problems, as well as the creation of new knowledge.

But how can education systems capture that learning, and communicate it to parents and communities? ESSA provides states with the opportunity to design dashboards that communicate a broader range of indicators of school quality and student learning. States must still establish rigorous standards and report on student academic achievement, as well as incorporate a measure of school quality beyond academic achievement that will help parents, communities, and education leaders understand levels of opportunity, access and engagement. A dashboard with multiple measures can be a powerful driver for improvement, giving schools and districts the information needed to identify specific areas of strength and target areas that need improvement. They also signal to communities and districts that education is broader than achievement alone; that the “secret sauce” of education is a much more complex mix of inputs and outputs that combine to develop our children all across this country.

For an example of a dashboard, see the work of the CORE Districts in California. The CORE districts developed a School Quality Index that includes various measures in four domains: academic achievement, social and emotional skills, school culture and climate, and access to learning opportunities. The social-emotional measures, which are being developed, will assess growth mindset, self-management, self-efficacy, and social awareness; they will be measured through student and teacher surveys. Additionally, the California Department of Education developed a School Quality Snapshot that includes various indicators on student achievement, student engagement, and school climate.

States face a tremendous opportunity in rethinking how their reporting systems, but they need to be thoughtful in design and development of dashboards. For example, dashboards can increase transparency, but adding multiple measures to a state report card might be more confusing to parents and the public. States should be thoughtful in how data is displayed so that it’s easily understood by the general public. They might also consider ways they can engage with the community in this process so that stakeholders can provide guidance on how to make data accessible to them. Another concern is that some districts may use multiple indicators to mask low performance academically with high scores on other non-academic measures. To address this, the new federal law ensures that academic measures carry more weight than non-academic measures. In addition, a dashboard format requires data on all measures be displayed, including student achievement.

School Quality Reviews

Shifting to a system based on multiple measures requires states to gather different kinds of information to provide a more accurate snapshot of school performance. That information is valuable both for the state and school systems, but also for parents and communities that want to know more about the quality and progress of their schools. To gather this data, states are pursuing statewide diagnostic or “School Quality” review systems. We wrote about this previously as a way of illustrating not only that this strategy is possible, but that states are working together to explore building these systems--and create the types of accountability systems that would support the learning that Maria, in the story above, enjoyed.

In Vermont, for example, the state is working to create learning environments like the one described in Maria’s story. To support these environments, the state recognizes it must have different kinds of data to measure its success. In addition to collecting quantifiable metrics and displaying them in a dashboard, the state will gather qualitative data about schools through an in-depth diagnostic review, which will provide more complex information about the state’s Supervisory Unions (a governance structure comprising groups of districts and/or schools) on three-year cycles. This system of combined metrics will give the state the knowledge needed to determine whether or not students like Maria have equitable opportunities for learning. It provides the state with more robust information upon which it can make decisions. The state’s Education Quality Review (EQR) system is in the pilot stage right now, a process that will inform the long-term evolution and development of the EQR system that eventually will be used statewide.


Under the new federal law, states face a tremendous opportunity to revisit their accountability systems and rethink how they can better serve students, teachers and parents. Many states already have made progress on their systems to include multiple measures and provide the data parents and teachers need to make more informed decisions. Going forward, as states begin to implement ESSA at a state and local level, they should consider the measures they use and how results are displayed to ensure these systems remain meaningful.

What if we could really ensure that every student, no matter their ability, background, race, or language had the opportunity to learn in an adaptive, learner-centered environment similar to Maria’s? We are not far away from achieving that vision. Several states already are working tirelessly to build accountability systems that support this type of learning. We hope other states can learn from their experience to chart out the future of their accountability systems. Every student should have the opportunity to learn as Maria did; now we just have to figure out how to make that happen at scale.

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