Assessment Opinion

What Do We Mean by Accountability?

By Diane Ravitch — December 02, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I wish, as you suggested, that we could have some influence on the national debate. Even when we don’t agree on the specifics, we at least have the humility to know we don’t have all the answers to the problems. For the next few years, much will depend on decisions soon to be made by President-elect Obama. If he chooses as the secretary of education one of the slash-and-burn superintendents who have recently been in the national news (think Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, for example), then the whole nation will be subjected to a new brand of leadership, one that is intent on producing numbers (test scores) without giving much thought to the larger goals of education. We could see a strange paradox in which test scores go up even as knowledge and education deteriorate.

This outcome would not in fact be paradoxical, because we know that the relentless focus on test scores in basic skills has been accompanied by a narrowing of the curriculum in most other areas.

One of our readers, Patricia Buonchristiani, sent me a column that she wrote for an Australian newspaper (The Age) on Dec. 1, warning Australians not to follow the American example in which test scores are the highest goal of education. It seems she was a principal in a Virginia school and saw the ugly consequences for children and teachers of the NCLB regime. She wrote her warning when she heard that the Australian Minister of Education, Julia Gillard, had invited New York City Chancellor Joel Klein to spread the gospel of testing and accountability. Apparently, many Australian newspapers were properly skeptical of testing as a cure-all for educational ills.

As we try to figure out what “bold alternate schemes” there might be, we need to decipher what accountability is and what it should be. I was very impressed a few months ago by Richard Rothstein’s paper “Holding Accountability to Account,” which is available online. Rothstein shows that strict adherence to any single measure (like test scores) has the unintended effect of corrupting schooling. By making test scores the sole gauge of progress, one can expect to see cheating and test prepping, and other quasi-legitimate and outright illegitimate ways of reaching the only goal that matters. When teachers, principals, and students are given rewards and punishments for only one measure, that measure may well rise, but at a cost.

What is the likely cost? What will be sacrificed—and is now being sacrificed—is an education of quality. Instead of educating students for post-secondary education, for a life of civic responsibility and for the modern workplace, we may instead send forth young people who have been cheated of an education. They were cheated because the only goal that counted was their score on a standardized test. They were cheated because the adults in charge of them were told that nothing else mattered—not their character, not their sense of civic duty, not their knowledge of history, geography, literature, or anything other than basic skills.

Interesting that Daniel Koretz (in his book “Measuring Up”) treats test-prepping as something that is just a step or two removed from cheating. Yet we know that many districts today spend a lot of time and money giving children “interim assessments” and preparing children for the all-important state tests. The question that remains unanswered is whether students would do just as well on tests for which they have not been “prepped.” The answer, I fear, is no, which means that whatever they learned through test prep was transient, did not transfer to other settings, and was to that extent fraudulent.

The questions you raise are central: What does “accountability” mean? Who makes the decisions? For what can we hold schools accountable? What matters beyond test scores?

Maybe our readers can help us find reasonable definitions and answers to our questions.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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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