Accountability in the age of unreason: Portfolio school districts’ focus on broader quality measures offers a dose of sanity

Driven by concern over the Common Core, the long-brewing storm brewing around test-based accountability has recently reached near fever-pitch. In a recent post, Jay Greene described the situation and its impact, noting that, “the whole idea of standards and test-based accountability is being undermined by the imprudent over-reach of Common Core.”

The foundation doesn’t take a strong position on Common Core itself or the ways that supporters have gone about trying to ensure implementation. And we’re also leery of over-reliance on standardized, summative tests. That said, we believe, strongly, that improving education for all kids depends on having a clear, measurable and consistent definition of what quality looks like, and on holding schools accountable for hitting that bar.

As such, we’re acutely aware that, although testing isn’t an adequate measure of quality, the current situation puts us at risk of throwing the (quality) baby out with the (Common Core/testing) bath water.

Testing may not be the means, but the end– quality– is solid

One of the biggest problems we see? The possible derailment of some cities’ promising attempts to develop better definitions of school quality across district and charter sectors. These cities, which are pursuing a strategy of school portfolio management—a strategy which seeks to replicate high-performing schools of every kind while improving or ultimately replacing those that serve kids less well—are often painted as poster children for the perversion of test-based accountability.

But if critics cared to look closer they would recognize something:  The accountability systems developed and employed in cities pursuing a portfolio school district strategy tend to be much more holistic and progressive than the blunt instruments developed by state education agencies and applied to all schools.

The accountability systems developed and employed in cities pursuing a portfolio school district strategy tend to be much more holistic and progressive than the blunt instruments developed by state education agencies and applied to all schools.

For example:

  • Chicago Public Schools’ new School Quality Rating Policy (which applies to all public schools in the city, both district and charter) uses test scores to measure student growth in learning and student achievement, but tracks attendance, on-track-to graduation rates, graduation rates, and college enrollment and persistence to measure school performance. More important, CPS gives serious consideration to surveys of school climate and culture by making use of the University of Chicago’s 5 Essentials surveys, which identify effective leadership, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environments and ambitious instruction as critical elements of success.
  • New York City Department of Education’s (NYCDOE) School Progress Reports include test-based measures, but also heavily weight student and parent survey data regarding school culture and climate. Of note, NYCDOE doesn’t simply rely on quantitative data, but also conducts school quality reviews where teams of trained observers rate how well a school is structured to support teaching and learning. In a recent report on What’s Next for Accountability in New York City, the DOE outlines plans to provide schools with the flexibility develop to tailor a portion of their accountability measures to reflect their schools’ unique priorities. The report also proposes to elevate the significance of the quality reviews in evaluating school performance.
  • The School District of Philadelphia’s recently released School Progress Reports (SPRs) employ test based measures, but also include post-secondary outcomes, and school climate measures. Future iterations of the SPRs will include measures of equity, and more robust parent and student feedback.  An interesting aspect of the SPRs, appreciated by school leaders, is that they heavily weight student growth over student attainment levels and take pains to compare schools to peer groups of schools with similar demographic profiles.

Additional work on portfolio school district accountability systems

The foundation is currently working with leaders in Cleveland and Baltimore to develop and implement accountability systems that utilize a mix of quantitative metrics, survey data and School Quality Reviews – and many more cities including Memphis and Sacramento are supported by the Center for Reinventing Public Education in doing similar work.

Can these accountability systems evolve even further?  Certainly.  I’d argue that:

  1. We should seriously consider scaling back summative testing to grades 3, 5, 8, and 11.  This will decrease testing pressures and, at the same time, put much more weight on having students prepared in their “gateway” years (those before they move from elementary school to middle school and middle school to high school).
  2. We must start designing and using better measures of equity. These could take many forms, but at minimum, schools should be held accountable if they expel students in special categories (special education, low income, etc.) at a rate higher than the average in their cities.

Bottom line: Portfolio cities are leaders in holistic evaluation of school performance.  As emotions around test-based accountability continue to flare, those of us who have a grasp on what a more nuanced accountability system looks like need to counter fear with the facts – and constantly push for better ways of evaluating school quality.