Schools across the country have closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and states have cancelled their spring assessments. These cancellations mark the first interruption of the annual testing cycle since the No Child Left Behind Act passed nearly 20 years ago. Annual assessments have been the foundation of accountability systems for schools for the past two decades. But some newer elements of accountability created in conjunction with the Every Student Succeeds Act have also been stopped cold by the pandemic: school climate, for example, is meaningless when all students are at home. In response to this situation, the U.S. Department of Education has already granted waivers for assessments and accountability.
At REL Mid-Atlantic, we’ve been thinking hard about the implications of school closures for accountability because all five of our member states are active participants in our research alliance on accountability—an alliance that recognizes that accountability systems should ultimately inform the improvement of teaching and learning. In that context, one key message for the current moment is important to share beyond the region: The absence of annual tests and other important measures of students’ outcomes does not mean we must abandon school accountability this year. High-stakes testing is not the only tool in the accountability toolbox. In fact, policymakers now have an opportunity to employ a wider range of tools than schools have typically used.
Although the education policy discourse defines accountability narrowly as explicit consequences for students’ outcomes (usually test scores), accountability can come in many forms. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a large behavioral science literature in which accountability is understood more broadly to include a range of social mechanisms intended to shape behavior. Asking a decision maker to give reasons for a choice produces accountability; making a decision maker identifiable produces accountability; even the mere presence of another person can produce accountability, making a decision maker responsive to the other person. All of these mechanisms create accountability through transparency even without explicit consequences—transparency that can help promote accountability for improving teaching and learning.
With school buildings closed, creating accountability through transparency might seem daunting. But even though principals can’t visit classrooms, schools and districts can do quite a few things to make their actions more transparent to state education agencies, parents, and the public. In Education Next, Chester Finn has suggested a few examples, such as reporting the number of students who complete their remote assignments and the number of students with disabilities whose families participate in individualized education program meetings by teleconference.
Schools and districts will need to take the lead on these kinds of accountability, because state education agencies rarely have access to the relevant data. Schools and districts can use two general approaches to make themselves accountable through transparency while their physical facilities are closed:
1. Document and report exactly what they are doing to help all students continue learning from home. What resources are they providing, and how are they providing them? What are they doing to ensure access for students with disabilities, students without reliable Internet access, and students without computers? What are their expectations for their teachers? Fortunately, many districts are already doing some of this, though with widely varying depth and specificity (as the database of district plans assembled by the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows).
2. Count successful engagements with students and start reporting these numbers. Some of Finn’s examples fall into this category. State agencies and the public ought to know not just how many laptops a school district has distributed but also how many students have successfully logged into the relevant systems and how frequently they have done so—a pretty clear and direct analog to conventional attendance.
As any educator with experience in remote instruction can tell you, keeping students engaged is perhaps the single biggest challenge. The well-documented academic failures of online schools are surely attributable to the dearth of live (or “synchronous”) interaction between teachers and students. Most students aren’t going to learn a whole lot if left to their own devices. The districts and schools most likely to succeed in remote education will be those that provide a substantial amount of synchronous instruction and live student–teacher interaction. (The absence of systematic synchronous instruction from most of the district plans found by the Center on Reinventing Public Education is worrisome; New York City’s Success Academies, in contrast, seem to be providing a promising example of online education, employing a mix of synchronous and asynchronous instruction.)
In short, transparently documenting basic measures of students’ engagement with schools provides important accountability—for students as well as schools. In addition to reporting the frequency and intensity of students’ use of online educational systems and the continued functioning of individualized education program conferences, districts and schools could monitor and report other measures of engagement, such as the percentage of teachers who have conducted synchronous classes, the percentage of students who have joined those classes, and the number of students who have completed online assignments or assessments. Any district that systematically employs an online platform should be able to collect these numbers.
To be sure, these are not the kind of accountability measures that a state could currently collect on all its schools and districts. Nor would they be appropriate to use on their own for high-stakes decisions. But when traditional test-based accountability is no longer possible, policymakers should consider different tools to promote accountability in schools. Some of those tools are likely to remain useful as part of richer and more comprehensive accountability systems even after school buildings are reopened and testing resumes.
Brian P. Gill is a senior fellow at Mathematica and director of REL Mid- Atlantic.
This post originally appeared on REL’s RELevant blog.