Beyond high-stakes tests: What would a richer accountability model look like?

The drive to improve the US public education system and outcomes for all students is at an inflection point. Elements of Generation 1.0 of the accountability movement, born in Texas, and spread nationally via No Child Left Behind (NCLB), need to change. The grassroots opt-out movement emerging in many corners of the country is just one indicator that something is amiss.
The main goal of the accountability movement, ensuring all students are exceptionally served by the schools they attend, hasn’t shifted—and it shouldn’t. But the mechanisms put in place to get us to our current state, a series of high-stakes summative tests, are overly blunt.

Lessons from the field

What would a revised accountability—accountability 2.0—system look like? Our work in data-driven education—done in partnership with districts, charter management organizations, educators, the ed tech community and others—offers some insights:

1. Richer metrics of school success promote better student results.

The evidence shows that, in comparison to test-based accountability metrics, a broader set of school quality data can provide more reliable measures to track school success—and to build on it. In 2011, the foundation funded UChicago Impact’s 5 Essentials School Effective Survey. Research shows that schools strong on the 5 Essentials are 10 times more likely to substantially improve student learning—a significant finding in light of NCLB waivers that provide flexibility in using broader measures to assess student growth.

2. Accountability shouldn’t divorce schools from high quality instruction.

A common refrain among educators, parents and even students is that schools too often focus on teaching to the test. In an upcoming blog, Sara Cotner, founder of Austin-based Montessori for All, will argue that the challenge facing the current accountability system is less the tests themselves than how the sector has responded to them. Cotner will argue that a critical misstep in implementation of NCLB reforms is that schools began teaching kids how to jump through very specific test-related hoops, instead of simply focusing on good instruction.

3. Measurement is a tool for learning.

Year-end snapshots of student learning—assessment OF learning—are of limited value in the classroom. The right tools and process put ongoing measurement to work day to day, turning assessment into a tool FOR learning.

4. Teachers are partners.

Past accountability efforts have effectively been done to teachers, with little support or training to help them meet new expectations. As we move toward accountability measures that incorporate a broader range of data, we should ensure that we give educators access to meaningful day-to-day data and the support they need to keep pace.

5. Parents are a key constituency.

In the past, accountability was mostly a matter of tops-down measurement, with educators and schools held accountable to state standards. A more holistic view of accountability views parents as a key constituency as well, and recasts rich data as a tool to stimulate conversation and partnership between parents and teachers for the good of student. Policy has a role in positioning parents as stakeholders. A new generation of ed tech tools likewise enables the shift. One sample tool might be a mastery-based report card that would provide parents more granular insight on what their child has or hasn’t learned.

6. Data security and privacy matter greatly.

Use of education data is not going away, and in terms of what we can do to help students achieve better mastery of a wide range of concepts, that’s a good thing. But as we evaluate how to put a wider range of data to better use for kids, we have to understand that security and privacy are inseparable from the concept of “better use,” and actively support efforts to develop sound approaches to protecting our kids.

Moving forward

The current accountability system is overly blunt, but its baseline goal—more consistent and better outcomes for all students—is the right one. We discard it at our peril.

The good news is that, in schools and classrooms around the country, a better path is emerging. In order to help move the accountability conversation forward, we look forward to sharing insights from the field over the coming year. In the next few weeks, we’ll hear from a number of educators and school leaders about how their schools are incorporating data into the classroom. Next up is Sara Cotner, founder of Montessori for All, an Austin, TX public charter slated to open in the fall of 2014.