Accountability can't deliver quality
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of accountability, a strategy policymakers have adopted to guarantee quality education. It assigns consequences to teachers and their schools when student performance on standardized tests falls short of defined levels. This is supposed to improve results.
When parents assign their children weekly chores and then make their allowance contingent upon completing those chores, they are holding their children accountable. Kids are perfectly able to put away their toys or take out the garbage. They aren’t being asked to clean the gutters or repair the roof. The expectations are appropriate and attainable, and fully within the control of the child.
Being held accountable for your actions is reasonable, high achievement for all children is certainly desirable, and, without question, teachers are the key players in the school experience. A combination of these ideas serves as the basis for test-based accountability, but, as David Koretz points out in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, the combination does not add up to a fair or effective approach to closing gaps in learning among individuals or across schools.
Supporting test-based accountability requires accepting the following assumptions: Teachers have full control over student achievement; all children, despite differences, can achieve at the same level on the day they take a test; and, if students do not meet these expectations, punishment will drive teachers to do a better job. Education will then improve without additional investment.
Connecting consequences to test performance is serious. It should be fair and appropriate. Expectations must be realistic and attainable, and whoever is being held accountable must have adequate or complete control over the results. Common sense will tell you high-stakes testing is built on invalid assumptions. Expected outcomes are not attainable, and there are powerful factors that teachers don’t control.
The federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002, which launched high-stakes testing as a national policy, required that all students achieve test-measured proficiency by 2014, an aspirational goal. Many children who do not achieve at high levels can certainly do better, but expecting equal test performance ignores real differences among individuals and the opportunities they have access to—differences that have a profound effect on school engagement and success.
Teachers can work miracles with individual children, but they don’t hold all the cards when it comes to student learning or test performance. Long before test-based accountability took center stage, research showed income to be the primary driver of differences in standardized test results. That hasn’t changed, but policymakers continue to ignore this fact. Teachers cannot control everything students do on a test, and teachers cannot control the unequal distribution of resources available to support instruction or the impact of concentrated poverty on classroom challenges.
Accountability to me seems like a simplistic and useless way to provide the kind of education and growth and development we want for children. It has inflicted serious damage on children, teachers, schools and communities, and it has shaken our confidence in our public education system.
We don’t need a better report card or other devices to hold people accountable for things they don’t fully control. We need a different strategy.
Susie Kaeser has been a public school advocate and resident of Cleveland Heights for 40 years. She is co-convener of the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the retired director of Reaching Heights.