Special Report

Tough Balancing Act on Accountability

December 30, 2015 | Corrected: January 26, 2016 6 min read
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Corrected: The Quality Counts 2016 report, published as the Jan. 7 issue of Education Week and online, included errors in the school finance analysis. This article has been revised to correct information regarding summative scores and per-pupil expenditures. Details are available at www.edweek.org/go/qc16correct.

The Quality Counts 2016 report, published as the Jan. 7 issue of Education Week and online, included errors in the school finance analysis. This article has been revised to correct information regarding summative scores and per-pupil expenditures. Details are available at www.edweek.org/go/qc16correct.

For the past decade and a half, the fight to improve America’s schools has been fought largely on two fronts: academic standards as one battleground, and accountability the other, with the issue of mandatory testing adding heat to a very public—and increasingly politicized—debate.

The questions for policymakers and educators are as direct as they are complex: What should students be expected to learn, how should we measure what they’ve learned, and what should be the consequences when they don’t achieve as expected?

Even as disputes rage over standards and assessments in light of the Common Core State Standards, accountability has become entangled with a host of its own political, practical, and educational issues.

For some, the very term “accountability” is synonymous with testing—especially mandated, federally driven assessments like those enshrined in the now-defunct No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But accountability is also bound up with the question of consequences: for schools that are subject to state accountability systems; for teachers, whose pay and job security can be linked to students’ test scores; and for students themselves, whose promotion and even graduation can hinge on how they fare in the assessment world.

At the same time, pressure mounts for schools and districts to include a variety of non-academic factors, such as school climate, in the accountability equation.

Shifting Sands

This year’s 20th edition of Quality Counts takes a deep look at a welter of issues surrounding educational accountability and how the changes being ushered in by what’s widely seen as a scaling back of the federal government’s policy footprint are putting newfound autonomy and opportunities for innovation in the hands of states and school districts.

Education Week reporters traveled to schools and districts on both coasts to examine the changing face of state and local accountability approaches. They explored how those strategies can give a more fleshed-out portrait of school effectiveness and their potential to support and improve schools and struggling students.

Digging Deep

Articles in this special report examine the ways in which school districts and states are collaborating on accountability systems that take into account both traditional academics and a variety of other indicators, such as dropout and suspension rates, school climate, and important social and emotional factors that researchers increasingly say can play a role in students’ success and struggles.

They also look at cutting-edge efforts to turn around low-performing schools in ways that aim to hold local educators to high standards while providing the support they need to get the job done. And a carefully curated selection of research summaries takes stock of what high-profile studies have to say about the impact of the landmark, but controversial, No Child Left Behind Act in the accountability arena.

At the same time, the Education Week Research Center—in a nod to Quality Counts’ genesis in 1997 as an accountability instrument at the advent of the standards-based education movement—mined some two decades of the annual reports’ coverage for a wealth of insights into the performance of the nation and the states on a host of education-related indicators.

Over the years, Quality Counts has examined issues as diverse as standards, testing, teaching, English-language learners, international competitiveness, school climate, and the impact of the Great Recession on schools and districts. The snapshots from those reports highlighted in Quality Counts 2016 offer historic perspective and have continuing relevance in the education policy debate.

The Research Center also looked deeply into the trend lines on student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress during a multiyear period in which the NCLB law helped set the template for state-level accountability. The results make for interesting and provocative reading.


Separate from this year’s dedicated theme of accountability, the Quality Counts 2016 report once again provides comprehensive, summative grades for the nation and the states on a range of custom indicators developed over the years by the Research Center: the Chance-for-Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index, and the school finance analysis.

Taken together, the nation as a whole received a C on this year’s report, with a score of 74.4, the same letter grade as in the 2015 report. Massachusetts took first place among the states, with a B-plus and a score of 86.8, followed by three states that received Bs: New Jersey (85.1), Vermont (83.8), and Maryland (82.7).

At the other end of the spectrum, Nevada was at the bottom of the list, earning a D with a score of 65.2, one of three states to receive Ds, along with Mississippi (65.6), and New Mexico (65.8).

And in a major bright spot, the District of Columbia jumped to 28th place in this year’s report from 38th last year, earning a grade of C with a score of 72.9.

Chance for Success

Among the highlights from this year’s results on this key indicator, which looks at conditions for a positive outcome over the course of a person’s life, the nation’s overall grade remained stagnant for the ninth straight year, earning a C-plus.

At the same time, however, 33 states boosted their scores on this year’s report, and the District of Columbia proved a standout in this category, buoyed by increases in family income and parents with jobs.

One key takeaway from this year’s results on the Chance-for-Success Index, with its cradle-to-career perspective: While the nation as a whole saw some small gains at either end of the arc—early childhood and outcomes for adults—it posted a dip in results in the crucial K-12 time of life.

K-12 Achievement

The multifaceted K-12 achievement indicator, which is based heavily on the NAEP scores as well as Advanced Placement tests and high school graduation rates and is updated biannually in line with NAEP’s reporting schedule, yielded a C-minus for the nation as a whole, the same grade as two years ago, the last time the indicator was produced.

Eighth graders saw a drop in the percentage scoring “advanced” on the NAEP in math in the 2013-15 period, although the picture was different for students taking AP tests, with a notable increase in the proportion receiving high scores on those assessments.

Among the states, Massachusetts again topped the list—as it has in each report since the index was launched—as the only state to earn a grade of B, with a score of 85.2.

School Finance

Lastly, this year’s report once again offers detail on how K-12 funding is allocated throughout the states and what that says for the nation as a whole. This analysis takes into account factors that include both overall spending and the equity with which that funding is distributed among districts.

Overall, the U.S. earned a C in the area of school finance, based on 2013 data, the most recent available. New York is this year’s top-ranked state, with a grade of B-plus, while Idaho received an F, the sole state to do so. In general, states did better in terms of how equitably they distributed their funds than they did on overall funding, the analysis found.

When regional cost differences are taken into consideration, overall per-pupil funding nationwide averaged $11,841. Vermont was at the top in this category, spending $19,134 per pupil, and Utah ranked lowest, spending $7,084 per pupil.


Board of Trustees, Editorial Projects in Education

Sarita Brown, president, Excelencia in Education • Chris Curran, founder and managing partner, Tyton Partners (chair) • Virginia B. Edwards, president and editor-in-chief, EPE and Education Week (ex officio) • Francesca Forzani, associate director, TeachingWorks • Robert Hughes, president, New Visions for Public Schools • Mike Lawrence, executive vice president and chief reputation officer, Cone Communications Inc. • Chris Liedel, president, Smithsonian Enterprises • Ericka Miller, chief of membership, governance, and higher education, The College Board • Aida Molina, assistant superintendent for academic improvement and accountability, Bakersfield City School District • Harriet Sanford, president and CEO, The NEA Foundation • Jim Sexton, vice president digital, B.A.S.S., • Lester Strong, CEO, AARP Experience Corps • Jerry D. Weast, founder and CEO, Partnership for Deliberate Excellence • Ronald A. Wolk (chair emeritus), founder, Education Week (ex officio)


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