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School Accountability Systems Seen as Unlikely to Face Major Overhaul

By Lynn Olson — January 29, 2007 4 min read
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Policy experts and scholars gathered here last week cited chapter and verse about the negative consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act’s reliance on state tests to judge schools.

But there was less agreement about what a better alternative might look like, and even less optimism that one would come to pass.

At a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, on the future of test-based accountability systems, participants did offer some ideas for how to address the unintended consequences of such systems. Those perceived effects range from a narrowing of the curriculum to a focus on low-level skills at the expense of more-ambitious learning targets.

But the consensus at the Jan. 22-23 meeting, which was hosted by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or CRESST, seemed to be that tweaks, rather than big revisions, in test-based accountability are most likely in the near term.

The conference was held in honor of Robert L. Linn, who has been a director of the federally funded research center since its founding in 1985. Mr. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has written extensively about what he sees as problems with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Those include the lack of evidence that all students can score at the “proficient” level on state tests by 2014, as the law requires; the wide variations in how states define proficiency; and the inability to draw firm conclusions about school quality based on test scores alone.

Mr. Linn has proposed using test results as “descriptive information” to flag schools that need a closer look at their instructional and organizational practices, rather than as the final determinant of whether schools should receive rewards or sanctions.

But Lorraine M. McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cautioned that while test-based accountability might appear “ripe for major change,” it is likely to remain the dominant paradigm for the next five to 10 years.

That’s because the core idea of using externally imposed measures to judge schools is deeply entrenched, she said, and in part because critics have yet to offer a compelling alternative idea. “In the end, I’d say, it’s all about the ideas, or the lack thereof,” she said.

‘Merit Badges’

Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at the Harvard University’s graduate school of education, suggested that states routinely include test items with unfamiliar formats as part of their testing systems to help detect whether the gains reflected on such tests reflect real learning on the part of students or narrower test-preparation activities.

He also said that the reauthorization of the 5-year-old federal law, scheduled for this year, could offer waivers to states to experiment with different forms of educational accountability and gather evidence on their effects.

Eva L. Baker, a UCLA professor of education and a co-director of CRESST, raised the idea of giving up on trying to change state tests, which will always be constrained by the costs and logistics involved, she said.

Instead, she suggested finding other ways to recognize students’ accomplishments across a broad array of important domains by permitting students to accumulate a series of qualifications, or what Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, called “merit badges.”

Such badges could range from completing writing or research projects to Web-based instructional modules. Students could then use those unique portfolios for review by employers or colleges.

Forget Perfection

Others at the meeting suggested focusing more on instructional interventions that could improve schools, and on increasing the capacity of educators to teach differently based on research.

“Transforming education to allow all children to reach their potential is not, primarily, an accountability problem; it’s a teaching and learning problem,” said Joan L. Herman, another CRESST director and professor of education at UCLA.

“Is accountability serving the public interest?” she said. “I still say yes, though we need to and can do better.”

Bella Rosenberg, an independent consultant who used to work for the AFT, said if policymakers were serious about closing achievement gaps among students from different demographic groups, they would pay more attention to tackling out-of-school factors that influence achievement and to attacking socioeconomic inequities.

“American teachers are, by and large, heartsick and very angry over this law,” she added of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Yet while some changes in the NCLB law may be advisable, “I actually hope [the law] doesn’t fall apart,” said Michael J. Feuer, the executive director of the National Academies’ Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. The alternative could be accountability based solely on markets, he said, and that could be even less desirable.

“This is big stuff,” he said. “It’s complicated. And if the standard of evidence is perfection, forget it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as School Accountability Systems Seen as Unlikely to Face Major Overhaul

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