School Accountability Before, During, and After NCLB

With NCLB reauthorization taking another step forward, I’m again hearing the refrain that states won’t back away from school accountability when they’re not forced to by the feds. “We’re in a new era,” I’m told, and states are going to lead the way forward. I hope this is true, and this is certainly the theory of action behind the current reauthorization proposal, but historical precedent runs against it. Here are just a few examples from NCLB:

Annual testing: Prior to NCLB, nearly every state required some test in reading and math, but they weren’t given annually and many were norm-referenced, meaning they compared students against their peers rather than holding all students to the same standard. As of 2002, only 9 states required all students in grades 3-8 to take a criterion-referenced test in English Language Arts. Only 7 did so in math. Only 14 states required any test in ELA in grades 3-8, and only 10 did so in math. These figures come from a 2002 CCSSO report tracking state education policies.

Accountability systems: States began implementing school accountability systems in the early 1990s, but by the time of NCLB’s enactment in 2002 just 29 states had adopted some form of consequential accountability system. Another 14 relied on transparency alone, and the remaining 7 states did nothing. (For more details on the timeline and why consequential accountability matters, see here).

Disaggregation: States may have been testing or holding schools accountable, but a 2000 GAO report found they generally weren’t looking at the performance of particular groups of students. 10 states failed to disaggregate results for students with disabilities, 11 didn’t do so by race, 12 didn’t track students with Limited English Proficiency, and 24 states didn’t disaggregate by income. Only 17 states disaggregated by ALL these groups. (See Figure 5).

Other measures: The same GAO report also showed that states were slow to enhance their accountability systems with other measures beyond test scores. As of 2000, only 22 states disaggregated graduation rates (graduation rates!) by high school.

NCLB forced states to improve on all these measures. And while people routinely laud NCLB for that fact, those same people often assert that federal authority can’t do anything worthwhile. It can, and it did.

This same pattern has continued to play out since NCLB as well. Federal nudges keep prodding states along in ways that are good for the country. Practically no state was using a growth model to hold schools accountable for the progress students made each year rather than just their final proficiency rates until the Bush Administration specifically invited states to participate in a pilot program. Only a few states had the technical capacity to do so, but within a few years of the pilot program, 15 states did. That progress stalled after the Obama Administration failed to promote or improve the pilot. When the Obama Administration offered states an opportunity to re-think their accountability systems as part of its waiver initiative (which I worked on at the Department of Education), some states took up the offer and did come up with creative new ideas. But many states failed to take up the mantle and use the opportunity to really rethink their accountability systems.

I’m afraid this is what we’ll see more of when the federal government stops pushing states forward. We’ll continue to see some high-flying states doing really creative, good things for students. But we’ll see a lot more just kind of getting by and doing the bare minimum, particularly when local politics and inertia prevent state leaders from pursuing bold changes on behalf of disadvantaged students. I hope I’m wrong, but history suggests I’m right.

– Chad Aldeman

This first appeared on Ahead of the Heard.

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