Texas Hit the Accountability Plateau, Then the Rest of the Country Followed

The Accountability Plateau,” by Mark Schneider,  just published by Education Next and the Fordham Institute, makes a big point: that “consequential accountability,” à la No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes state testing systems that preceded it, corresponded with a significant one-time boost in student achievement, particularly in primary and middle school math. Like the meteor that led to the decline of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals, results-based accountability appears to have shocked the education system. But its effect seems to be fading now, as earlier gains are maintained but not built upon. If we are to get another big jump in academic achievement, we’re going to need another shock to the system—another meteor from somewhere beyond our familiar solar system.

So argues Mark Schneider, a scholar, analyst, and friend whom we once affectionately (and appropriately) named “Statstud.” Schneider, a political scientist, served as commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008, and is now affiliated with the American Institutes for Research and the American Enterprise Institute. In his new analysis, he digs into twenty years of trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the “Nation’s Report Card.”

We originally asked Schneider to investigate the achievement record of the great state of Texas. At the time—it feels like just yesterday—Lone Star Governor Rick Perry was riding high in the polls, making an issue of education, and taking flak from Secretary Arne Duncan for running an inadequate school system. We wondered: Was Duncan right to feel “very, very badly” for the children of Texas? Had the state’s schools—once darlings of the standards movement and prototypes for NCLB—really slipped into decline since Perry took office? What do the NAEP data really show?

Schneider agreed to take on the project but quickly concluded that there’s a larger and more interesting story to tell than simply the saga of Texas. It was true, he noted, that Texas’s achievement slowed during the Perry years, particularly as compared to the rest of the country. But rather than pin that development on the governor, Schneider saw a more likely explanation: As an early adopter of standards, testing, and accountability, Texas got a head start on big achievement gains, most of which it realized in the 1990s when George W. Bush was governor—and also a head start on flat-lining thereafter, during Rick Perry’s tenure.

Indeed, the Lone Star State made Texas-sized gains from the early- to mid-1990s, as its accountability system got traction. But as other states followed suit, they too hit the achievement fast-track, leading to sizable national gains from 1998 to 2003. Since then, however, Texas’s progress has cooled, and the same is now happening to the country as a whole. It’s not that Perry was a worse “education governor” than Bush (or, for that matter, Ann Richards) before him, but that he presided over an accountability strategy that was running out of steam.

It’s an intriguing argument, and one that deserves serious consideration, even more so as the U.S. marks the tenth anniversary of the enactment of NCLB and tries to figure out what the next version of that law should entail. If school-level accountability, as currently practiced, is no longer an effective lever for raising student achievement, then what is? If we need another “meteor” to disrupt the system, where should we look? Mark suggests that the Common Core and rigorous teacher evaluations have potential. We also see promise in the digital-learning revolution. But other shocks to the system might work even better. What are they?

-Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael Petrilli

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