Judging Schools: The Focus Shifts To Results

Rather than looking at compliance with rigid government regulations, states are increasingly evaluating schools on how well students perform

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Spurred by political and business leaders, states and the federal government are moving rapidly toward what one leading educator calls a “paradigm shift” in the way schools are judged.

Unlike in the past, when schools were evaluated on whether they had complied with regulations governing “inputs”—such as pupil-teacher ratios, library books, and course offerings—governments are increasingly measuring school quality by how well students are performing.

President Bush and the nation's governors signaled their support for this new view at their education “summit” last fall. In a joint statement, the executives agreed to “establish clear measures of performance and then issue annual report cards on the progress of students, schools, the states, and the federal government.”

But even before the summit, school accountability was an issue high on the state agendas. In fact, a majority of states can cite recent policy initiatives that try to hold schools accountable for the quality of instruction and student performance.

  • In New Jersey, officials have sent parents the state's first “report card,” which details how each of the state's schools performed on high school proficiency tests, elementary basic-skills tests, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and Advanced Placement tests, as well as in student attendance and graduation rates.
  • In North Carolina, lawmakers have linked some state funding to a district's ability to meet at least 75 percent of the performance goals it sets, using state-determined criteria.
  • In Maryland, a governor's commission has proposed establishing an accreditation system that would evaluate schools, in part, on the basis of student performance.

Says Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States: “I'm hearing more legislators say, 'We've escalated money for reform; how do we know we've gotten anything for it?'"

Such activity by state policymakers, suggests Chester Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, reflects a “paradigm shift” in education. In the near future, he predicts, “the enterprise of education will be defined entirely by actual learning accomplished and accounted for. Indeed, no 'education' will have taken place unless there is evidence learning occurred.”

But, because schools continue to rely on what they consider to be inadequate measures of student performance—mainly standardized tests—this shift may be premature, critics warn. Until more accurate tools are in place, these critics charge, the accountability efforts could harm education by leading schools to employ the wrong policy prescriptions.

Moreover, contends Lorraine McDonnell, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, the drive toward accountability threatens to collide head-on with the equally strong move to restructure schools by granting authority at the building level. “A big issue,” she says, “is how to devolve power down to schools and keep accountability to the larger system.”

She continues: “The technical difficulties in designing [accountability] systems are significant. But these challenges pale in comparison with the philosophical and political issues accountability raises in public education: Who should be held accountable, to whom, for what? That has always been a difficult question, but school restructuring further complicates the resolution.”

Those advocating more school-site autonomy, McDonnell says, contend that teachers and principals should be held accountable for their schools' performance. But, she says, state “indicator measures influence what schools do. They can act as a constraint on school-based management.”

For example, she notes, a school may decide that it wants to de-emphasize science in order to focus on the arts. But if the state's accountability system includes a measure of student performance in science, the school may be unable to give up a science course if it does not want to look bad on the state measure.

But perhaps the most pressing question, suggests Susan Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education, is whether the states' efforts will lead to genuine improvements in student learning. States can point to “a lot of winners in all categories of schools,” she says. “That's improvement. But whether that will lead to the kind of work force we want remains to be seen.”

The calls for new standards of accountability reflect the growing involvement of business in education. “They have become key actors in school reform in many states,” notes Terry Peterson, executive director of South Carolina's joint business-education subcommittee. “As part of that, particularly if there is new money, they want to know what they are getting for their investment.”

Political leaders are also interested in seeing the results of large increases in education spending, suggests Marla Ucelli, education adviser to Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey. “The citizens of New Jersey have a right to know what we are getting,” she says.

In response to such demands, more than half the states have put in place systems that link state actions—rewards or sanctions—with school performance. “A lot of states have moved on many issues, but there aren't many that have figured out how to put the pieces together in ways they are comfortable with,” says Michael Cohen, associate director of education programs for the National Governors' Association. “It's easier to reach an agreement that [accountability for performance] is the direction they ought to be going than pulling it off.”

The systems that have been in place so far have generally succeeded in focusing educators' attention on raising the level of student performance, suggests Peterson of South Carolina, which has one of the most extensive state accountability systems. In that state, districts that fail to meet state-established criteria on a range of indicators—including student-test scores, student and teacher attendance, dropout rates, and the proportion of teachers teaching out of their field—are listed as “seriously impaired” and must develop plans for improvement. Those that exceed state requirements and show improvement over time are eligible for public recognition, cash awards, and regulatory flexibility.

“People know about it, they think it's important, and they think it's a tool for school improvement,” Peterson says of the state's accountability program. He notes that a survey of teachers and parents found that most respondents said being judged “impaired” was embarrassing to a district, but that improvements outweighed the negative stigma attached to the label.

Other education officials and researchers agree that accountability systems have motivated schools—but in the wrong direction. RAND's McDonnell offers an example. Student test scores, she notes, are a “very powerful lever” for changing instruction. Because scores and school rankings are often published in newspapers, some administrators tailor curriculum and teaching methods to raise them. But many of those changes have not necessarily been for the better, she cautions, since traditional standardized tests measure a narrow range of student abilities.

“I have certainly seen schools, many at the low end of the achievement distribution, that have really changed their behavior” in response to accountability pressures, she says. “But many have changed in ways we feel are inappropriate.”

Vol. 01, Issue 04, Pages 14-15

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