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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

Rebooting Assessment and Accountability Post-Pandemic: What Now?

It’s a good time to rethink assessment and accountability
By Rick Hess — October 11, 2022 3 min read
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In the shadow of the pandemic, the question of testing and accountability looms large. On the one hand, parents and teachers recognize the devastating amount of learning students have lost and the need to identify what their own children do and don’t know. On the other hand, when students have already missed huge swaths of school time and report high levels of depression and anxiety, no one is eager to sacrifice learning time or human connection in order to have kids hunched over tests.

That leaves educational leaders and policymakers in a conundrum: They need the information that testing can provide but without the burdens that testing imposes. The disruptions of the pandemic have made this an ideal time to rethink accountability, especially since now, more than ever, we need a good window into how kids and schools are doing.

The trick, of course, is that we’ve just endured a two-decade journey during which once-broad support for testing and accountability has been bruised and battered. A big factor here, as I noted last week, was the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB began with the resounding promise that every U.S. schoolchild would be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 and ended in weary cynicism among educators, concerns about testing run amok, and backlash among parents.

So now, testing and accountability summon a lot of distrust and disenchantment. Fair enough. Yet, after the pandemic, there’s a crying need for transparency and visibility into whether hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency federal aid have done any good.

The challenge is to provide real value to parents and students, minimize burdens on educators and schools, and avoid creating the kind of machinery that invites bureaucrats to try their hand at micromanaging schools. In a new AEI volume that I’ve just released, seven leading thinkers offer some thoughts on how we can do just that. I’ll touch on just three of the contributions here:

Former NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley makes the case for low-burden, high-value assessments. Today, he points out, we tend to emphasize tests that are burdensome (like Advanced Placement exams) or that are low-burden because they don’t offer much value to individual teachers or students (like NAEP). Buckley sketches out the promise of an approach in which states administer a series of interim assessments, providing parents and teachers with up-to-date snapshots of student performance.

ETS Associate Vice President Laura Hamilton explores the promise of incorporating more nonacademic quality indicators in accountability systems. She notes that schools can be scored for safety, climate, or proficiency at promoting social and emotional learning, but that there are also risks in shifting from simple measures of basic academic mastery to more subjective constructs. In pondering any such move, Hamilton urges educators and policymakers to ask four crucial questions: What is the purpose of incorporating nonacademic indicators? Is accountability the best way to achieve that purpose? Who should select these indicators? And how does one ensure the resulting data are useful?

Especially in the aftermath of school disruptions that had many parents seeking educational alternatives, it’s necessary to think about how assessment and accountability can be shaped to meet the needs of students, families, and educators in “nontraditional” environments. Michael Horn, the author of From Reopen to Reinvent, considers the case of alternative schools. While students who enter these schools are often struggling academically, alternative schools are typically scored by the same accountability metrics as traditional district schools—an approach which tends to stack the deck against them. Horn argues that such schools should instead be evaluated based on factors like learning outcomes, program completion, post-graduation earnings, and student satisfaction.

These contributions, and the others in the volume, aren’t intended as a comprehensive agenda for “fixing” assessment and accountability. I fear that such a charge is beyond the task of even the most enterprising of analysts, partly because the necessary fixes will, I suspect, look different from place to place. But I know a whole lot of policymakers, parents, school leaders, educators, and advocates are wrestling with questions of testing and transparency, and I think the contributors in this volume have provided a terrific tool for framing and informing those conversations. And now’s the time to have them.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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