If Parents Push for It, Accountability Can Work

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled in education is convincing the American public that we have had test-based accountability. The media and politicians adopted the rhetoric of “high stakes” tests without bothering to ask the question: what, exactly, are the stakes? For most adults in education, there were none. Shockingly few public-school educators have lost salary or received a raise or a promotion because of their students’ test results. By the same token, very few teachers have been counseled onto a different career track or been required to complete targeted professional development. Outside of a handful of states and cities, true test-based accountability has never been implemented.

This is a problem, because the stakes are extremely high for students. Parents and teachers complained—with some legitimacy—that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era set loose an avalanche of weak fill-in-the-bubble tests to assess student mastery of watered-down state academic standards.

Yet even these substandard assessments were predictive of future life outcomes. As Tennessee’s commissioner of education, I could look at the results on the state’s old tests and make a highly accurate prediction how any particular 8th grader would eventually score on the ACT, which, itself, is highly predictive of completing a two- or four-year postsecondary degree. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the test results—with all of their inherent weaknesses—gave a strong indication of how students were faring in our system.

While we spent recent years pretending that a teacher might lose his or her job because of an 8th grader’s poor test results, we gave short shrift to the reality facing the 8th grader: a lifetime of truncated opportunities dictated by weak performance at an incredibly young age.

Today, we face two questions. First, will the pseudo-accountability of the last 15 years dial back, stay the same, or be transformed into something real? And second, should we care?

On the first question, my guess is that our attempts at accountability will stay much the same but the rhetoric will dial back. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states will give annual tests; the results will be published and released; schools will receive some form of rating, based largely on those results; and the very lowest-performing schools will be subject to some form of intervention.

For the average school and school district, the real impact will be public scrutiny and potential embarrassment as a result of receiving a lower “grade” or being placed on a watch list—in most cases, with little formal consequence.

With states now appropriately crafting accountability frameworks that focus not just on test scores but on multiple measures, we also will hear less heated rhetoric about the consequences of poor results. The draft state ESSA plans that I have seen cite measures such as technical assistance for districts and “continuous improvement feedback cycles.” Toning down the rhetoric of accountability—particularly when the realities didn’t match the heated language—makes sense, as long as we don’t lose our resolve to use student results as a barometer of whether educators are succeeding.

Accountability Works

Because, while teachers and parents may have grown tired of accountability, here’s the rub: test-based accountability, even executed poorly, works. From 1999 to 2011, during the heyday of NCLB and its state-level predecessors, overall student scores improved on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in both reading and math (see Figure 1). Furthermore, scores rose faster for African American and Hispanic students, narrowing achievement gaps. State bubble tests may have been weak, the over-fixation on tests in some schools may have been real, but it is a flat-out fact that kids—particularly low-income and minority kids—got a better education.

And while the pace of progress on NAEP has slowed over the past six years, some states and districts continued to make major gains. Tennessee and Washington, D.C., showed the most growth of any state and city in the country, with major improvements in reading and math (and, in Tennessee, also in science). These two places happened to be the leaders in applying test-based accountability to teachers, putting teacher tenure on the line (in Tennessee) and teachers’ jobs and salary on the line (in D.C.). While no studies prove what was responsible for the test-score improvements, these results would seem to imply that actually holding adults responsible for student progress can have a positive impact on outcomes.

Federalists will often make the case that we should let a thousand flowers bloom, sit back, and wait for the cross-pollination to occur: if states, districts, or schools apply test-based accountability and it works, then others will willingly adopt those best practices.

Reality shows that this is a pipe dream. The national response to improved results in Tennessee and D.C. has been a deafening silence. There have been some laudatory news articles, but precious little cross-pollination. We haven’t seen states and districts beating a path to Nashville and D.C. to learn how they improved results. Nor have we seen an increase in states evaluating teachers using student achievement growth and making decisions based on the results. Few if any districts are upending the tenure track and paying teachers different salaries based on student outcomes.

And herein lies the conundrum of accountability and the question of its viability in the coming decade: if test-based accountability works to improve student results but is unpopular with people who make their living in schools, can we reasonably expect it to find a foothold?

Unfortunately, public school educators are far from the only ones pushing back against hardcore accountability. The fundamental reality is that test-based accountability commands precious little political will all around. While some portray this lack of support as a repudiation of the NCLB era, it actually stems more from the populist policymaking of modern America. Visit any state legislature and you will generally find Democrats spouting union-fed lines about over-testing and demoralized teachers. You will find Republicans repeating talk-radio tropes about the Common Core and its associated tests. And you will find partisans on both sides—given the growing political homogeneity of large cities and rural counties—spouting the merits of local control. That attitude is likely to be reinforced by the new Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Right–left fissures in the reform community have reduced the chance of rebuilding a strong bipartisan coalition for accountability. Additionally, the broader education-reform community—the foundations, nonprofits, and think tanks that historically pushed school systems to adapt and change—increasingly have given test-based accountability the cold shoulder. Charter schools have become fetishized at the expense of reforming the traditional public-school system. That’s a shame, given that the vast majority of low-income kids today, tomorrow, and 20 years from now are and will be served by traditional school systems.

Do We Care?

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some schools, districts, and states are doing better work than their peers. Some are getting better results, and some are driving faster improvements. How do we know this? Because of tests. Because we can see actual evidence that kids have learned things and that schools have improved. Even in the absence of true consequences for low performance, we at least have the ability to identify and learn from the places that are succeeding—if we can spur the necessary actions.

ESSA ensures that annual tests are here to stay, but it also formalizes a reality that has been true for a while: states decide what accountability for results looks like. Their choices will be shaped by public will. The future of accountability—and of using test scores to improve our schools—will depend on one thing: does the public care enough to advocate for the “eat-your-vegetables,” common-sense annual tests and the associated accountability?

Most parents favor such tests. But if the loudest and most active (read: white upper-middle-class suburban) parents think standardized tests are just an annual annoyance, if these parents and other activist voters choose to disbelieve the results in the fact-free era of modern political discourse, then accountability will be diluted down to the posting of test results and the annual finger wagging of the local news media.

This is where leadership must come into play. It is imperative that governors, state chiefs of education, and other local leaders vocally advocate for the potent change shaper of accountability and convince the public of that power. I am optimistic that state education leaders are availing themselves of the chance to draft stronger, multifaceted measurement systems under ESSA. If voters and parents get behind these systems, and we implement them with fidelity, we will be able to use test results—and other measures—to dramatically improve our public schools.

This is part of a forum on test-based accountability. For alternate takes, see “Why Accountability Matters, and Why It Must Evolve,” by Morgan S. Polikoff, or “Futile Accountability Systems Should Be Abandoned,” by Jay P. Greene.

This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Polikoff, M.S., Greene, J.P., Huffman, K. (2017). Is Test-Based Accountability Dead? Education Next talks with Morgan S. Polikoff, Jay P. Greene, and Kevin Huffman. Education Next, 17(3), 50-58.

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