Why Accountability Matters, and Why It Must Evolve

Try to think of an education policy that 1) has been shown, in dozens of studies across multiple decades, to positively affect student outcomes; 2) has the overwhelming support of parents and voters; 3) reinforces many other policies and facilitates quality research; and 4) has been used widely at the district, state, and national levels for decades or more.

You might be thinking that such a policy doesn’t exist, and if it did, we’d surely want to keep it around. But the truth is precisely the opposite. Such a policy does exist—it’s called school accountability—yet the powers that be seem increasingly ready to throw it out and leave education to the whims of the all-but-unregulated free market.

School accountability, specifically test-based accountability, has been a staple of K–12 education policy since the 1990s (and even before that, in some states and districts). Over that time, we’ve learned quite a lot about it.

First, we’ve learned that it can work. We’ve seen this in studies of individual districts, individual states, and the nation as a whole: David Figlio and Susanna Loeb’s 2011 review of research summarizes this literature comprehensively. The effects observed in many studies are substantial, especially given that they typically occur schoolwide. The effect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on students’ mathematics achievement documented by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob and confirmed by Manyee Wong and colleagues is equivalent to the gain from spending three or four years in an average urban charter school, according to the latest data from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Accountability doesn’t seem to do a great job at closing achievement gaps (though it certainly shines a light on underperformance), but there’s considerable evidence that it can raise student achievement.

Second, we’ve learned that parents and voters feel strongly that accountability is essential. Polls show overwhelming bipartisan support for the common-sense idea that schools receiving public dollars to educate children should be accountable for providing a good education. Education Next’s 2016 poll reported at least two-thirds support for annual testing among both Republicans and Democrats. In the 2016 PACE/USC Rossier poll of Californians that I led, we asked what schools should be held accountable for; voters rated standardized test results last among the options presented, but 69 percent of them still believed accountability for test results was important. We also know that parents prioritize student achievement when selecting a school for their children. In our increasingly resource-constrained and globally competitive world, this desire for outcomes will only intensify.

Third, we’ve seen that accountability mutually reinforces other policies and provides essential data to support education research and improvement. For instance, there is suggestive evidence that charter schools perform better in contexts where accountability is high (that is, where strong authorizing laws shut down poorly performing schools) than where it is weak or nonexistent. Accountability was intended to provide weight to state standards and encourage teachers to implement them, and evidence suggests it does focus teachers’ attention on the content that state policymakers want teachers to emphasize. Not to mention that the data emerging from the same tests used for school accountability have powered a revolution in education research that has allowed scholars to dramatically improve the relevance and rigor of their work.

Finally, we’ve learned a lot about how to design accountability policy to better target the schools that most need improvement. It is now generally understood that the simplest performance measures—those that defined test-based accountability under NCLB—mainly tell you who’s enrolling in a school, not how well the school is educating those students. We know that performance indexes and growth measures are much fairer and more accurate ways to classify school performance. There’s also a growing consensus that in the next generation of accountability policies, we must broaden the criteria beyond test scores, and the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), encourages this kind of creative rethinking.

We’ve also learned that the design of accountability policies can affect the way teachers respond to them. For instance, policies that focus attention on raising the achievement of low-performing students may be more effective than those that offer rewards for high student performance in general. And teachers do seem to respond rationally to accountability policies by focusing more on the grades and subjects that are tested. As for concerns about NCLB’s negative impact on teacher working conditions, Jason Grissom and his colleagues have shown that the law’s implementation did not diminish teachers’ job satisfaction or increase their levels of stress. While the unintended consequences of accountability can be pernicious, they can also be addressed, at least in part, through policy design.

Countering the Opposition

Despite this track record of modest success, many parties seem poised to throw the policy overboard and use the guise of “parental choice” or “local control” to return us to a time when we had little idea which schools were educating children well and which were not. The opposition to accountability in education is largely political; my 2016 analysis of California poll data, for instance, found that disapproval of President Obama was among the strongest predictors of Common Core opposition, and Education Next and others have routinely found that voters support “common standards” or “common assessments” when they are not tied to the Common Core name.

There are of course more principled concerns with accountability, and it is worth taking a moment to address them. One issue is that accountability in general, and test-based accountability in particular, can have negative effects on instruction, such as a dumbed-down, narrowed curriculum. This problem can be addressed in large part by improving content standards and the assessments used to gauge student performance. Recent work I co-led with Nancy Doorey indeed finds that the two state-assessment consortia have made considerable improvements over even the best NCLB-era tests. This issue can also be addressed by broadening the set of indicators against which schools are evaluated, which many states are poised to do under the new federal accountability law.

Another concern is that the tests used for accountability do not predict important life outcomes, and thus that we might be focusing on the wrong things. To be sure, studies do not show a perfect one-to-one relationship between impacts on test scores and impacts on later life outcomes—no one expects they would. But several studies do show longer-term effects of accountability policies; we have strong evidence from Raj Chetty and colleagues that impacts on test scores do predict impacts on other important life outcomes; and, again, many states appear poised to broaden accountability measures beyond just test scores.

What Comes Next?

There is no doubt that the coalition that once supported accountability policy has frayed. The Republican leaders in the executive and legislative branches, which once championed accountability, have turned to school choice as the primary strategy to produce reform (even as public opinion on choice, especially more extreme forms such as vouchers, has begun to sour). But choice without accountability is unlikely to work. Without test results, for instance, we would not know that online and virtual charters appear to be demonstrably harmful to students, as are many Louisiana private schools attended by students using vouchers. Nor would we know that Boston’s well-regulated charter high schools produce truly stunning positive effects on students’ test scores and early college decisions. Choice programs that do not contain accountability provisions offer us zero assurances that educational dollars are being well spent.

Where should we go from here? We must continue to recognize that the design of accountability policy matters, and we must refine our policies over time. ESSA allows states to do this. It allows states to include better test-based measures of school performance, and they should. It allows them to incorporate measures of school climate, student attendance and discipline, and progress toward college and career readiness, and states should adopt and experiment with these measures. It allows them to target consequences on a smaller subset of low-performing schools and move away from NCLB-era interventions that were largely ineffective, and states appear to be focusing their efforts on more promising interventions that target growth and effective practices. Will the next round of state accountability policies be perfect? They will not. Will they be better than what they replaced? They almost certainly will.

Over the last several decades, we have made real, if incremental, progress in education. Test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are up for every student subgroup (even accounting for the downward blip in 2015), and graduation rates are, too. Accountability systems have worked well with other reforms—such as effective choice policies, the expansion of early-childhood-education and other school-readiness programs, and efforts to improve the teaching force through evaluation and tenure reform—to improve education for children around the country. There is simply no reason to think that abandoning accountability at this point would be an effective strategy. The coming years will see new and creative uses of accountability in states and districts. We must encourage and study this innovation if we are to continue improving America’s public schools.

This is part of a forum on test-based accountability. For alternate takes, see “Futile Accountability Systems Should Be Abandoned,” by Jay P. Greene, or “If Parents Push for It, Accountability Can Work,” by Kevin Huffman.

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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