Reading & Literacy

Accountability Moving Beyond Math, Reading Tests

April 24, 2012 9 min read
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As states seek waivers under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, one effect may be to chip away at the dominance reading and math have had when it comes to school accountability.

Many state waiver applications include plans to factor test scores in one or more additional subjects into their revised accountability systems. Seven of the 11 states that won waivers in the first round intend to do so, and about a dozen of those that applied in the second round have the same intent.

Science is the most popular choice, followed by writing and social studies.

Georgia, for instance, plans to include all three of those subjects in the elementary and middle grades in its new accountability system for schools, plus a set of high school end-of-course exams.

Kelly R. Price, the president of the Georgia Science Teachers Association, said she’s glad to see science added to the mix.

“We’re excited about it because we notice with [the NCLB law], the topics that got the priority of instruction during the day were those that were tested and those whose tests had high stakes,” said Ms. Price, a former science teacher and now a curriculum coordinator in the 37,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., district. “So we have seen a reduction in science instruction, especially at the K-5 level.”

Other states, such as Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina, have for years factored achievement in subjects beyond reading and math into separate state accountability systems, but those results were not counted for No Child Left Behind purposes.

Through their waiver plans, officials in those three states say they offer an approach to end the problem of having two sets of competing demands by creating a unified system, and one that would consistently count the same subjects.

New Subjects

Many of the states that have requested waivers to gain flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act have indicated that they will factor assessments in addition to reading/language arts and mathematics into their accountability systems.


SOURCES: Education Week; State Waiver Applications

Oklahoma is moving to a new A-to-F grading system built around test scores in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, as well as other measures.

A state official said that even though subjects like science and social studies had a role in the state’s prior accountability system, those subjects were not part of rating schools, and now are poised to gain greater attention.

“We did feel like the other tests were part of the [prior] accountability system, but not to the degree they will be now,” said Maridyth M. McBee, Oklahoma’s assistant state superintendent of accountability and assessment. In fact, she said she’s heard positive feedback from social studies teachers in particular.

“They say, ‘Finally, we won’t be the ones on the outside,’ ” she said.

The state plans come as Eugene Judson, an assistant professor of science education at Arizona State University, in Tempe, has completed a study, to be published in September in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, which finds that states that use science in their accountability calculations see significantly higher achievement gains over time at the 4th grade in the subject than states that do not. For 8th grade, there was no difference.

Mr. Judson also found no evidence that the extra attention to science had a harmful effect on achievement in reading and math at either grade level.

He suggests one factor that may explain why the science benefit was only found in 4th grade is that elementary schools have more latitude in the time they spend on science, and so may have increased it when science became a part of the accountability system.

With Congress far behind schedule in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which the NCLB law is the current version, the U.S. Department of Education has begun to issue waivers of some key provisions.

It already has approved such relief for 11 states—two of which are conditional waivers—that hand them considerable flexibility on federal requirements in the design and implementation of their accountability systems. Later this spring, the department will make decisions on a second round of 27 state applications, with more likely to apply in September. The waivers will be good through the end of the 2013-14 school year, the point at which the NCLB law called for states to raise all their students to proficiency in reading and mathematics.

To gain a waiver, states must adopt college- and career-readiness standards and assess students on those standards, craft guidelines for teacher- and principal-evaluation systems that are based in part on student performance, and develop differentiated accountability systems that include a focus on 15 percent of their most academically troubled Title I schools. Those schools are to be identified as either “priority” (the bottom 5 percent in achievement) or “focus” schools, for intervention. In addition, states must identify a set of high-achieving “reward” schools for recognition.

Other Indicators

Experts say states have always been permitted to count achievement beyond reading and math when determining if schools have made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act, but nearly all states have focused strictly on those two subjects. The law requires annual testing in those subjects in grades 3-8 and once during high school.

States must use “at least one other academic indicator” for both elementary and middle schools in measuring AYP, the law says, such as other test results, attendance, and grade-retention rates. For high school, the graduation rate must be a factor.

Liz Utrup, an Education Department spokeswoman, said agency officials are aware of just one state, New York, that explicitly calls for science to count as the “other academic indicator” in gauging whether elementary and middle schools have made AYP.

Georgia had recently signaled plans to start including science scores in federal AYP determinations, but that action was postponed and now is being pushed aside in light of the state’s receipt of a conditional NCLB waiver, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the state education department.

In Georgia, he said, school accountability has essentially been driven by the federal law, but that’s about to change. The state is developing a college- and career-ready performance index that will provide a numerical score, on a scale of 1 to 100, for each public school, he said. As part of its approach, the state will also identify federal priority, focus, and reward schools.

The new Georgia system will draw on academic results from multiple subjects, including science and social studies. It is also expected to factor in other matters, such as Advanced Placement participation and achievement in high school and even the proportion of students at the end of 5th and 8th grades who complete “career portfolios.”

“So many times under AYP, if a student is struggling in English/language arts and math, they get pulled from science and social studies,” Mr. Cardoza said.

Schools, he added, “do so much more than what AYP measures.”

In Oklahoma, Ms. McBee, the assistant state superintendent, said that while science, social studies, and writing achievement will gain more prominence in the new grading system for schools, they will not be given as much weight as reading and math. That also appears to be true for many other states.

Federal waiver guidance says states may use test data in multiple subjects to identify priority, focus, and reward schools, but must give “significant weight” to reading/language arts and math. And the other tests must meet certain criteria.

One reason reading and math hold greater weight in Oklahoma, Ms. McBee said, is that they are tested more often and, therefore, are the only subjects that will count for the “growth” dimension of the accountability system.

One-third of the grade is to be based on academic performance across all tested subjects, she said. Another one-third is academic growth in reading and math. The final third is what’s called “school and community participation.”

In the elementary and middle grades, that will include attendance rates, parent- and community-engagement factors, and what the state’s waiver application calls “school culture indicators,” among other factors. At the high school level, graduation rates are also included, as well as participation and performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Despite the wider array of measures to gauge schools than under the NCLB law, Linda S. Hampton, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said she has deep concerns.

“We just don’t think it’s accurate and fair,” she said. “The purpose should be to improve learning, not to label or punish schools or kids. And we think assigning letter grades is shortsighted and doesn’t give a complete picture.”

‘Disconnect’ in Systems

Florida has long included science in its A-to-F grading system, but not as part of federal AYP requirements.

“Before, there was a disconnect between the two systems [on a variety of issues], and they seemed to be pointing in different directions,” said Jane A. Fletcher, the state education department’s director of accountability and policy research.

Under Florida’s approved waiver plan, she said, the state will essentially define federal priority schools as those receiving an F, and focus schools as D schools. And science achievement will be a factor.

“We’ve tied it all back in,” she said.

Ms. Fletcher said adding science will “broaden” what the state uses for federal accountability and reporting purposes, but may not make much difference for schools.

“In Florida, schools were paying in recent years much more attention to school grades than they were to AYP designations, because of the problem with the target getting so high that very few schools were making AYP,” she said.

Florida will soon bring additional subjects into the accountability fold, Ms. Fletcher said: civics achievement in middle school and U.S. history in high school, based on legislation approved last year.

Adding those subjects is another step toward giving a broader picture, she suggests.

Maryland, meanwhile, plans to incorporate science into a new school performance index, but the subject will not be used in identifying priority, focus, or reward schools.

Tennessee, on the other hand, will factor science into those federal designations, explaining in its successful waiver plan that counting the subject will encourage “high achievement” and recognizes “the importance of science in guiding future job prospects for students.”

Colorado recently developed a new state accountability system, with a focus on incorporating student growth in achievement that has drawn national attention.

“We framed our whole application based on our current [state] system,” said Keith E. Owen, the associate commissioner of the Colorado education department.

Science was already taken into account as part of that system.

Mr. Owen said his state expects to eventually factor in student achievement in social studies, once an assessment is designed.

“The state board has adopted that assessment, but it’s not been developed yet,” he said. “The intent is to include it in our overall accountability system.”

That move is welcomed by Fritz Fischer, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, and a former chairman of the National Council for History Education.

“In the educational world we live in, it is a positive development,” he said of the plans by his state and some others to include history and social studies in their accountability systems. “I am very sympathetic to those who think we test too much and we are obsessed with testing, but that battle is over.”

At the same time, said Mr. Fischer—who co-chaired a state panel to revamp Colorado’s K-12 social studies standards—it’s critical to make sure the tests “move beyond multiple-choice exams that test memorization and factual recall, and move toward the type of assessments that examine the historical-thinking ability of students.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Waivers to Widen Test Menu


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