Do We Need a “New Approach to Accountability?”

In public education, the term “accountability” often brings out the best and the worst in folks. Some see it as a necessary measure to understanding if teachers are teaching, students are learning, and districts are doing what districts need to do. Others see it as a “mandate” that measures the wrong things and places one-time student performance over the learning process as a whole.

Yesterday, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools issued their statement on testing, offering another voice opposed to “high-stakes testing” and calling for assessments that are meaningful and less stress inducing. President Barack Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan quickly backed the CCSSO/CGCS opinion (though I still maintain it is the path that Duncan has been largely advocating for nearly six years now).

Today, we have some new thinking that gets factored into the equation. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) released Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm. Written by Linda Darling-Hammond, Gene Wilhoit, and Linda Pittenger, the manifesto outlines for changes that need to be addressed in the accountability debate, while offering some fresh thinking on accountability 2.0 (or is it 8.0?).

What changes are needed? Put simply:

  • More sophisticated assessments that get at a deeper understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, and the like;
  • More equitable and adequate resources with regard to teaching, materials, and technology;
  • Greater capacity among schools and educators to reach more challenging content; and
  • A more effective model for change and improvement that moves schools from the current industrial model to “innovative learning systems for the future.”

To get us there, the authors point to a new accountability model that focuses on four key components: 1) meaningful learning; 2) professional accountability; 3) resource accountability; and 4) continuous improvement.

And what of those dreaded assessments that seem to block any meaningful discussion on true accountability? The good folks at SCOPE call for a model that looks to both standardized tests and performance-based assessments and portfolios. Standardized tests would inform the performance-based assessments, and results from the latter would be used to improve and enrich the former (while also informing teaching as a whole).

It’s hard to argue with what Darling-Hammond et al put forward, for it is really common sense. We need better assessments, tests that inform instruction and focus on student learning. We need to do a better job of delivering resources to all classrooms, particularly those that would be labeled historically disadvantaged. We need to push the envelope with regard to teaching more challenging content (which I would argue is why CCSS is an important floor to start with).

And we definitely need to move beyond the misguided notion that a single test, taken on a single day defines the success of a school, a teacher, or a kid.

But how does such a frame fit with the anti-testing zealots (or advocates, depending on your view) out there? Can we accept there is a meaningful role for standardized tests in the learning process? Can we use such tests, along with performance-based assessments, without cries of drilling, killing, and death by bubble sheet?

Even more importantly, can we all agree there are significant achievement, learning, and opportunity gaps in our public education tapestry and that we need a strong accountability model to bridge those gaps? Can we agree all is not roses, lollipops, and rainbows in our schools, and we have a need to improve and thus need to chart the best course to get there?

The ideas moved forward by SCOPE help us see where we need to go. The notion of moving from our current industrial model to a more innovative, future-focused one is particularly valuable. But the devil is always in the details. Can we use these sorts of ideas to move the discussion forward? Or are we destined for another round of “testing bad, accountability badder?” I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

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