Moving the Accountability Ball Forward

Many educators have seen recent discussions about topics such as multiple assessment measures and the problems of teaching to a “bubble test” as early indicators that the high-stakes world of No Child Left Behind accountability are coming to an end.  We hear talk about the “whole child” and skewed test scores and such, hoping that we will find qualitative measures by which to evaluate our schools and our students.

But it all begs the question — why are we so afraid of accountability?  Why is it that only folks like NYC Schools Chancellor seem to be relatively lone voices in being unapologetic for testing and for endorsing the notion with teachers teaching to an assessment that measures student progress?  Why do we believe having hard data on where students stand up, even against the state academic levels, to be a bad thing or a necessary evil?  And how do we move the discussion from a fear of assessment to improving the utility of our accountability measures?
The spring edition of the American Federation of Teachers’ American Educator takes a look at the issue, including pieces by Richard Rothstein and company about how we need to look at the issue of accountability beyond just the core quantitative numbers.  The articles are well worth the read.
What was most interesting is Rothstein’s call to “enhance” accountability by combining student assessments with “careful school inspections.”  Currently, we look at assessment as a measure of basic academic knowledge, coupled by critical thinking and problem solving skills in more advanced assessment models.  Rothstein seeks to expand the tick list, adding evaluations of items such as arts and literature appreciation, employment preparation, work ethic, physical health, and emotional health.  These, he posits, are a collection of our ultimate expectations for public education, and thus should be part of the assessment process.  Again, how do we measure the whole child?
Rothstein does offer some interesting specific on how to improve student assessments.  Namely:
* Assess representative samples of students at the state level and on a regular schedule, not only in math and reading, but in other academic subject areas — science, history, other social studies, writing, foreign language — as well as in the arts, citizenship, social skills and health behavior.
* Gather better demographic data.
* Report NAEP scores on scales, not achievement levels.
* Use age-level, not grade-level, sampling.
* Supplement in-school samples with out-of-school samples.
The latter four all fit within the general push to apply multiple measures to our assessment efforts, all in the hopes of providing a more “comprehensive” view of what is happening in the schools, using data for informative processes, and not necessarily for punitive or even intervention purposes.  I’ll admit, when I hear many of the ideas put forward by folks like Rothstein, I usually see them as attempts to weaken our accountability and assessment systems.  Age-level sampling, for instance, weakens the notion of grade-level proficiency.  We know what it takes to successfully complete the fourth grade, not what it takes to move from 10 years old to 11 years old. So let’s park that for a later discussion on the softer sides of accountability.
I’m particularly taken with the notion of expanding the slate of course subjects for which we assess student ability.  Just as we look at student achievement on reading and math, we should be evaluating students (and by extension, teaching) in other subjects.  The visual arts, for instance, are identified as a core subject under NCLB.  Can anyone tell us, though, how we assess student achievement in the visual arts?  Is there a good state arts exam we can point to as an exemplar?
if we are to expand the scope of student performance, though, don’t we need to start with national standards?  Can we effectively evaluate student achievement without clear, uniform learning standards?  Don’t we need a real understanding for what students are supposed to know as part of eighth grade life sciences or 10th grade U.S. government?  If we are to move comprehensively look at student achievement across all academic subjects, don’t we need to set expectations for proficiency now?  And if we do so, doesn’t it make sense to set a uniform expectation for all students?
AFT’s discussion should be seen as a positive development for those advocates of student assessment and accountability.  We are not talking about turning back the clock on nearly a decade’s worth of investment in strong student assessment models.  We’re not giving time of day to ridiculous drivel such as those offered by resident curmudgeon Joanne Yatvin that the feds should “lose the words ‘achievement’ and ‘rigor,’ which have no connection to the inquisitiveness, determination, creative thinking and perseverance students need.”  (And kudos to Joanne Jacobs to calling Ms. Yatvin to task for wasting space with this relic of an idea from a failed educational era.)  If anything, we need to restore real meaning to words like achievement and rigor, using them for more than just a punchline for whine parties hosted by the status quoers. 
No, American Educator demonstrates that assessment is here to stay.  It is no longer a matter of will we or won’t we.  The challenge before us now is how do we strengthen the system.  How do enhance assessments so they provide a more complete picture of student achievement?  How do we use data to improve instruction and hold all in the learning process accountable?  How do we ensure that every child is equipped with the skills and knowledgebase to move forward academically?  How do we hold our schools, teachers, and students more accountable, laying out clear standards, clear expectations, and clear rewards for measuring up?
We are definitely approaching a new day when it comes to student assessment.  We have the opportunity to strengthen our systems, ensuring that data is not just punitive and information is used to improve instruction and measure the true abilities of our children.  If the Obama Administration is serious about our need to innovate in the classroom, we all must recognize that innovation only works with hard, research-based measures to evaluate its effectiveness.  Innovation without assessment has no impact.  Great innovation can only go to scale if we assess its impact, measure its value, and assess its outcomes.

355 thoughts on “Moving the Accountability Ball Forward

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