Accountability Opinion

Rethinking the Way We Hold Schools Accountable

By Helen F. Ladd — January 22, 2008 6 min read
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Test-based accountability for schools has been a centerpiece of state-level education policy for more than a decade, and of national policy in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act since 2002.

This approach uses measures of outcomes—primarily student achievement as determined by test scores—to hold schools accountable for student performance. It differs from political accountability directed toward public officials and from market-based accountability in which schools answer directly to parents.

An important virtue of test-based accountability is that it appeals to three quite different views of what is wrong with American schools. Proponents of standards-based reform hail it as one component of a broader strategy to overcome the fragmented and incoherent nature of the K-12 education system. Others see it as a way to pressure inefficient teachers and school administrators into becoming more productive. Still others embrace it as a tool to address the huge disparities in educational outcomes across groups defined by race or by income.

Enough time has now passed—and enough research been done—to draw some conclusions about the strengths and limitations of this reform strategy and to suggest a more balanced approach.

Test-based accountability has not generated the significant gains in student achievement that proponents intended.

We know that test-based accountability systems can be powerful tools for changing the behavior of educators. Studies have consistently shown, for example, that educators focus additional attention on the tested subjects, notably basic reading and math, and reduce attention on others. Depending on one’s values, this impact may be considered positive or negative.

We also know that such systems can have a positive impact on student achievement. In our recent comprehensive review of such systems, many of which are state-specific and predate the No Child Left Behind law, David N. Figlio and I found that positive effects on achievement emerge far more clearly and frequently for math than for reading. Overall, though, the achievement effects are quite small.

Further, the achievement effects by racial group are mixed. In a 2002 paper, the Stanford University researchers Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb found larger effects of accountability on passing rates at the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress for black and Hispanic students than for white students. But other studies with different outcome measures find different patterns.

The bottom line is clear: Test-based accountability has not generated the significant gains in student achievement that proponents—however they perceived the problem to be solved—intended. Nor is the country on track to meet either the high proficiency standards required under the No Child Left Behind law or the equity goals suggested by its name.

As a reform strategy, test-based accountability falls short in at least three ways.

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First, it pays too little attention to the social factors that affect student achievement. More than half a century of research, both here and abroad, has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage on the one hand and low student achievement on the other. We are kidding ourselves if we think the education system can significantly reduce achievement gaps all by itself. Any serious effort to do so will require greater investments in early-childhood programs and in the health of children as they progress through school.

Second, the approach pays too little attention to the broader system within which individual schools operate. Where is the accountability for state, county, or district officials who fail to provide the resources and support services needed to make the schools function better? What about accountability for state and district policymakers who do little to counter the strong pressures for the income or racial imbalance of students or teachers across schools?

Third, test-based accountability tends to be punitive and pays too little attention to promoting effective process and practice within schools. Although testing students on a regular basis is an essential component of a well-functioning education system, tests are not very effective at evaluating, and hence promoting, 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, teamwork, and collaboration within diverse environments.

Given what a decade of research tells us about test-based accountability, it seems reasonable to think about policy changes that would capture the benefits of school accountability while minimizing its drawbacks. Here is my vision of a more balanced system.

States would still use test scores to hold schools accountable for realistically obtainable gains in student performance in core subjects at both the elementary and high school levels. That type of accountability would be supplemented by a new system of school inspections designed to improve practice and to encourage schools to pursue many of the other outcomes demanded of a good education system.

Each state would establish a statewide review board that would function independently of the state’s department of education. The review board would send small teams of professionals to make periodic visits to each school—perhaps one visit every two or three years—with each visit preceded by an internal self-study. The review panel would then write a report on each school that, along with the school’s response, would be made public. Though the report would include a summary of the school’s success, or lack thereof, in raising student achievement in the core subjects, it would evaluate the school on a far broader set of outcomes than student test scores alone.

The country is not on track to meet either the high proficiency standards required under the No Child Left Behind law or the equity goals suggested by its name.

The ultimate concern would still be student outcomes, but schools, in concert with district policymakers, could help define which additional outcomes were most important given the students they serve. Moreover, the review panel would look closely at the policies and systems that schools put in place to promote those outcomes. The panel itself would not be in the business of providing assistance or support to the school, since doing so would interfere with its ability to be objective.

Ironically, the result could well be more testing of students, not less, but with the tests being used more for internal diagnostic purposes within the classroom than for school-level accountability. The intent here is to encourage the schools to develop their internal capacities to make data-driven decisions, while not forcing them into a straitjacket of common outcomes and practices.

This approach would, in addition, identify the challenges the schools face in meeting their goals. District and state policymakers would be expected to make use of these reports in allocating resources, providing technical assistance, or otherwise making sure schools have access to the capacity they need.

Because the review board would ultimately be looking at all schools, over time it would uncover a number of different strategies schools are using in pursuit of their goals. The review panel might then write periodic overview reports describing the types of strategies used by different schools. It could also draw on nationwide scientific research to document the potential for the various strategies to be successful.

To be sure, such an inspection system could be costly, and questions might arise about where the personnel would come from and how to keep the system from becoming too bureaucratic. The approach appeals to me, however, because I view it as a far more positive and constructive form of school accountability than the current system.

The relevant policy question is whether the benefits are worth the costs. My own view is that there is a good chance they are, and hence that it is time for policymakers and researchers to engage in serious investigation of this alternative model of accountability.

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Rethinking the Way We Hold Schools Accountable


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