What Does the Future Hold for School Accountability?

Those who embrace the value of testing are no longer sure how to make their case.
US Chamber of Commerce building
Claims that school accountability will lead to good jobs may resonate at the Chamber of Commerce.

During the pandemic, I’ve talked to a lot of educational leaders and advocates who believe in the importance of testing and school accountability—but feel like they’re swimming upstream in their efforts to maintain support for these issues. I’ve been struck at how tough many of them have found it to navigate the shifting political currents.

This has had special resonance for me because Checker Finn and I recently finished a long postmortem on Clinton-Bush-Obama school reform (it’ll be out in June—I’ll write about it more then), and a key point is that the political dynamics that rewarded policymakers in the 1990s and early 2000s for embracing things like testing and accountability have come undone in today’s polarized, populist era.

This shift, coupled with a third academic year of pandemic disruption, helps explain the changed landscape for accountability—but also points to a valuable opportunity to recalibrate how we think and talk about academic testing. This would be a pretty different tack from the one educational leaders, advocates, and funders are pursuing in their efforts to “get the band back together” and reassemble the vintage coalition of the No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top days.

These efforts are hamstrung by the reality that the old coalition wasn’t simply willed into being but reflected the political realities of the Clinton-Bush-Obama years. During that time, leaders on both sides agreed to elbow aside culture clashes and focus on policy when it came to schooling. Testing and accountability aligned nicely with all of this. Democratic reformers could talk like Chamber of Commerce staff (favoring phrases like “return on investment”) while their GOP counterparts traded the “welfare queen” tropes of the 1980s for the language of compassion (“leave no child behind”). It all felt pleasantly nonideological and seemed to resonate with coveted swing voters.

Then, in Obama’s final years and during the Trump era, the forces of polarization and populism upended things. The Democratic base became concerned that testing was really a way to beat up on unions, advance “privatization,” bully urban communities, and undercut the case for more school spending. The Republican base grew more distrustful of what values the standards were promoting (think Common Core), were wary of Washington’s expanded role, and feared that bipartisanship had ultimately served as an excuse for coastal elites to advance ideological agendas in schools.

And then the pandemic struck. Under DeVos in spring 2020, the U.S. Department of Education quite reasonably issued a raft of waivers from testing and accountability requirements. Under Cardona last year, the department kept most of that in place. Now, we’re at a point where testing requirements have frayed and support for testing has softened. And what I’ve found, in one conversation after another, is that those who embrace the value of testing are no longer sure how to make their case.

Whether testing proponents recognize it or not, I suspect the current struggles are healthy—they’re a reminder of how much the momentum and machinery of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era allowed testing advocates to coast. Backed by federal mandates, huge foundation dollars, and media allies, they talked in sweeping assertions about the importance of testing and accountability.

They’d insist that testing was the key to leaving no child behind. That good schools were the engine of good jobs and economic growth. That reading and math tests revealed achievement gaps and that this was crucial to closing them. That the right standards would provide a foundation for the right tests, permitting complex teacher and school evaluation systems to drive system improvement.

Whether such arguments were right or wrong, they grew increasingly estranged from the day-to-day concerns of parents. Claims that school accountability will lead to good jobs may resonate at the Chamber of Commerce but not with parents skeptical of politicians, big business, and big donors. Talk about the benefits of large, industrialized testing and accountability systems can ring hollow with parents who tend to like their schools, distrust test manufacturers and tech giants, and don’t see any evidence that all these bureaucratic systems are improving what happens in their kid’s classroom.

That’s where the disconnect lies. The answer isn’t “better messaging” but appreciating that testing has real shortcomings. State tests aren’t designed to improve instruction. The results don’t come back for months, and parents don’t get any actionable feedback from them. Parents are right to wonder if any of this is helping their kid. Now, at a time when the pandemic has lent a new urgency to concerns about transparency, state testing has been an iffy, hit-or-miss proposition. It raises serious questions about how useful this whole testing enterprise really is.

Testing and accountability advocates can no longer count on being carried forward by powerful political patrons or deep-pocketed foundations. And, after multiple years of pandemic waivers, they can no longer count on Washington ordering states to hold the line. This should serve as a call to think anew about how to make the case for testing. That’s healthy. It’s an opportunity to revisit how to ensure testing really is serving the needs of students, parents, and educators—and learn how to explain that in a distrustful era.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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