Special Report

Path to School Accountability Taking Bold New Turns

By Alyson Klein — December 30, 2015 8 min read
Students arrive at Burncoat Preparatory School in Worcester, Mass. Burncoat was one of four low-performing schools to take part in the state’s intensive turnaround program and has now exited that process.
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For the past three decades, public school accountability had generally been heading in one direction: toward common standards, standardized tests, and a bigger role for the federal government in shaping how states gauge student performance and improve schools.

But now, all that seems to have taken a U-turn.

Reflecting a seismic shift in attitudes toward the federal footprint in education, states and districts are getting broad flexibility when it comes to how they measure school and student progress. And they’ll have much more say when it comes to intervening in the lowest-performing schools, and ensuring that students who are traditionally overlooked—including poor and minority students—don’t fall through the cracks.

They’ve also been tasked with looking at a broad range of factors to gauge school performance—not just test scores.

But the new leeway, embodied in a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has reignited an old debate: If states are given the controls when it comes to accountability, will they continue to turn around low-performing schools? Will they keep expectations high—and keep their foot on the accelerator when it comes to closing the achievement gap?

Margaret Spellings, who served as U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, is worried.

“The states basically have said, ‘We can’t get all kids reading on grade level, are you crazy? Let’s figure out some loopholes so we don’t have to,’ ” said Spellings, who was an architect of the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 reauthorization of the law that was arguably the high-water mark for federal involvement in accountability. “There’s nobody pounding the table and saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Nobody is putting the shame card out there. This is ridiculous.”

But Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent of education, said there’s no way the Magnolia State will back down from a strong system focused on high expectations for all students.

“I think states are excited about having a little flexibility, more autonomy,” she said. “But for me, in a state like Mississippi which has been underperforming for the number of years that it has, I cannot back up. I just cannot. ... I think it’s incumbent upon us to really be looking at this through the lens of equity because there are subgroups of our population that are just not performing as high as other subgroups, and that’s just not fair, and it’s just not just.”

Riding a Wave

The federally centered, largely test-driven approach to accountability that has dominated the landscape over the past decade and a half didn’t emerge from nowhere. Instead, the NCLB law grew out of the decades-old, standards-based education redesign movement.

That movement was arguably underway—in fits and starts—for some 30 years before it got hit with a double whammy of accelerants. First came the 1983 report “A Nation At Risk,” which warned that the country was falling dangerously behind the rest of the world in K-12 education, threatening long-term prosperity.

President George W. Bush’s signature of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 affirmed and extended the priorities laid down in the decades-old, standards-based movement to redesign education.

That report brought new momentum to a flurry of activity already taking place in the nation’s capital and around the country. States, particularly in the South, began—or continued—to ratchet up the rigor of their coursework and hold their students to higher expectations. Meanwhile, a 1988 reauthorization of the ESEA introduced the idea of looking at student outcomes to gauge whether federal money aimed at the poorest children was making an impact.

The second big boost came the year after that new iteration of ESEA became law: President George H.W. Bush convened a summit on education in Charlottesville, Va., featuring nearly every governor, including future President Bill Clinton, who was Arkansas’ chief executive at the time.

The 1989 summit resulted in a promise to set education goals, and for the country to hold itself accountable, somehow, for meeting them.

That pledge helped create a fragile federal-state partnership to further standards-based education redesign. Even in the face of concerns about federal overreach, it spurred a cascade of legislation: Goals 2000, a Clinton-era initiative that sought to provide states with resources to develop content standards, and the 1994 reauthorization of ESEA, the Improving America’s Schools Act, which introduced a federal requirement for statewide tests and standards for the first time.

Policy Hammers

The issue of public school accountability has been bound up with the question of consequences if schools, students, and educators fall short of the expectations set for them. Among them:

For Students

Retention: In some states, students that do not score above a certain threshold on an exam can be retained in that grade. For example, more than half of states have a policy to retain students in 3rd grade if test scores show they aren’t reading on grade level.

Diploma Withholding: At the high school level, some states require students to pass either a general exit exam or a series of end-of-course exams aligned to specific courses in order to receive a standard diploma. (States differ in whether they offer alternative pathways to graduation or other completion credentials in lieu of a standard diploma.)

For Schools

NCLB Era: The No Child Left Behind Act—now superseded by the federal education law’s latest reauthorization, the Every Student Succeeds Act—included prescriptive strategies for districts to use to jump-start changes in their schools needing improvement, increasing with severity depending on the number of years the school missed testing benchmarks. They included: the right of students to transfer to a better-performing school; free tutoring for students in schools needing improvement; revamping the curriculum, staff replacement, and even conversion of the school to a charter or turning it over to private or state management.

School Ratings: Many states use systems for identifying schools needing assistance, such as A-F grading systems.

Audits: Some states, like Rhode Island and Washington, require school improvement for low-achieving schools to go through an external audit or diagnostic process before improvement strategies are selected. Washington’s audit process includes parent notification and requires collective bargaining contracts to be reopened to align to the improvement plan.

Specialists: Some states send in support staff to help low-achieving schools. Georgia’s school effectiveness specialist, for instance, works to improve adherence to state curriculum frameworks, professional development, and assessment practices.

Menu of Options: Many states now offer far-more tailored options. Rhode Island’s lowest-performing schools must select at least nine strategies to improve from a list of several dozen.

SIG Strategies: Prompted by the federal School Improvement Grant program—on the way out as a separate program under ESSA—some states now use those options for intervening in schools. They include closing the school; converting to a charter school or other outside governance; replacing the principal and up to half the staff; or “transforming” via performance evaluations, extended learning time, and other strategies.

Receivership: A receiver is authorized to make major governance changes in a low-performing school. Under New York state’s law, a district superintendent is given receivership powers to, among other things, change curriculum, extend the school day, convert the school to a charter, and request contract changes. Eventually, the state can also appoint an independent receiver.

Parent Trigger: Some states allow parents to force major governance changes if more than half of a school’s parents sign a petition. California’s parent-trigger law applies to low-performing schools; parents can demand staff change-ups, conversion to a charter, or the use of a private company to operate the school.

For Teachers

Remediation: Most states and districts require teachers with low performance to be given professional-growth plans to boost their performance.

Parent Notification: Under the NCLB law, parents received letters if their child’s teachers were not deemed “highly qualified,” a designation given to those that have a bachelor’s degree, are fully certified by the state, and have demonstrated competency in the subject they teach.

Loss of Tenure: In some states, a tenured teacher may be returned to probationary status if he or she receives several poor performance evaluations.

Dismissal: Some states now specify that teacher-performance evaluations can contribute to a teacher’s dismissal for inefficiency, incompetency, or another similar reason in state law.

Library Intern Rachel Edelstein provided research assistance.

Meanwhile, states including Kentucky and Maryland were moving toward crafting their own accountability systems, including consequences and extra supports for schools that failed to make progress.

The NCLB law, which passed by big, bipartisan margins, was intended to build on that work and put some federal parameters in place to ensure that states tested students every year. And it expected states to take specific action in places where poor and minority students—or the whole school—were struggling to meet achievement targets.

That law also required states to work toward a common goal for student achievement: bringing all students to the “proficient” level on state assessments in reading and math by the 2013-14 school year.

Wiggle Room

But the law stayed in place for years without a facelift. As the deadline for bringing all students to proficiency neared, and it became clear that few states would come close to getting all children over that bar, the Obama administration stepped in. It offered states waivers from many of the mandates of the NCLB law.

The waivers, which were in place in 42 states and the District of Columbia in fall 2015, gave states more say over some pieces of accountability: setting student-achievement goals, pinpointing which schools needed the most help, and intervening in schools that had problems but weren’t seriously underperforming.

But the waivers tightened the strings on two other key accountability pieces by calling for new teacher evaluations that took student outcomes on state tests into consideration, and standards that would get students ready for college and the workplace.

States could either opt to use the Common Core State Standards—which are currently in place in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia—or draw up their own, as long as their institutions of higher education certified that the expectations were rigorous enough to get students ready for college and the workplace.

Setting the Stage

The Obama administration billed that as new state flexibility. But not everyone saw it that way. In fact, all the perceived prescriptions in the NCLB law and, later, the waivers, helped trigger a big backlash—against standardized testing, against the common core, and ultimately, against the federal role in accountability, said Jeff Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who focuses on education and politics.

It united some progressives with the anti-federal-establishment crowd, he explained, and ultimately put pressure on state leaders and Congress to head in a new direction.

That political dynamic, coupled with frustration on the part of some states with the NCLB waivers, helped shape the latest reauthorization of the federal education law signed by President Barack Obama last month.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states will be required to hold schools accountable for much more than just test scores. They will have to consider at least one factor that gets at school quality, such as teacher engagement, student engagement, or access to and success in advanced coursework.

What’s more, the law will allow a handful of states to try out new forms of assessments, beginning in individual districts, with the goal of going statewide. It also calls for states to focus their turnaround efforts on their lowest-performing schools and schools with high dropout rates, while giving state and district officials more control when it comes to interventions.

States and districts could use the new law to build on experimentation and approaches already underway. Massachusetts, for instance, uses a “triage” approach to school improvement—offering the most help to schools and districts that don’t have the capacity to transform themselves.

New Hampshire is already moving to replace traditional standardized tests with a new breed of “performance assessments.” A cadre of California districts is gauging schools on more than just reading and math scores—they are looking at “grit” and other social-emotional skills.

Ramping Up

There’s a lot of potential in the approaches getting a test run in New Hampshire and California, Deborah S. Delisle, the executive director of ASCD, a 150,000-member international education organization that provides professional development, advocates policy shifts, and more, wrote in an email. But, she added, other places need to know that neither state’s approach could be replicated overnight.

President Barack Obama, flanked by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., left, and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., signs the Every Student Succeeds Act, last month in Washington. The latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA scales back the direct federal role in school accountability enshrined in the law’s previous version, the No Child Left Behind Act, and puts more control in the hands of states and school districts.

“These systems took a significant amount of thinking, analysis, and work at the local level,” wrote Delisle, who served as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under Obama. “It is easy to be tempted to adopt another state’s or district’s pilot; however, processes are not necessarily transferable, and they need to be analyzed in terms of the local schools’ needs and goals for their students.”

What’s more, there are almost certainly going to be concerns about state capacity to take the lead on setting goals and turning around low-performing schools, said Paul Manna, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. He noted that some states have trouble just testing all students each year.

It may take a while for the dust to settle and a new vision for accountability to emerge, Henig said. But one blueprint for the future may be the past, specifically, the years just before the passage of the NCLB law, which saw a real range of approaches to accountability.

“Looking back to pre-NCLB, we see what we could anticipate as a likely outcome in the future, which is considerable variation in terms of how [states] use greater authority and discretion. Some states were leaders and innovators, some were laggards,” he said. “They vary in terms of political dynamics, vary in terms of bureaucratic capacity, ... and in terms of what they value.”


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