The bipartisan coalition that originally supported standards-based accountability is not as strong as it once was, but on Monday afternoon, we saw a glimpse of a revitalized and refocused effort to ensure student learning remains at the core of education policy decisions. To extend our recent work on the past, present, and future of accountability, Bellwether hosted a conversation with three national leaders with deep experience in accountability policy and systems: Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor; John B. King, Jr., CEO of The Education Trust; and Carissa Moffat Miller, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (Watch the full conversation below or read a complete transcript here.)
Each of these leaders approach education policy from different positions and political perspectives: the panel included a former Republican governor, a former cabinet member of the Obama administration, and a representative of states’ top education leaders. Nevertheless,panelists agreed on the enduring value of the core tenets of accountability, while stressing the need to adapt systems to meet the current challenges facing schools.
I observed six key takeaways for policymakers as they adjust accountability systems for next school year and beyond:
- Accountability is vital, even during a pandemic
- Accountability can and should adapt
- Accountability needs to be more than testing and school ratings
- Better testing could improve accountability systems
- Choice can add value to accountability systems
- We can and should make next year count
Accountability is still vital, even during a pandemic
The conversation started with a clear defense of the basic premise of accountability: that we ought to measure student learning and hold systems accountable for improving student outcomes. Governor Bush argued that “you can always make [accountability systems] better, but if you don’t measure, you don’t care.” He underscored the importance of maintaining high standards and accountability as many students face learning loss after pandemic-related school closures: “The siren call for less accountability in the midst of this is deeply troubling.”
John B. King, Jr. highlighted accountability’s role in illuminating inequities, but he also cautioned that systems need to improve how they act in response to information collected through accountability systems: “If we’re going to effectively hold people accountable, we have to make sure that the resources are there, that the training is there, that the quality curricula are there, and I think that support components need more attention and investment.”
The lesson for policymakers is unmistakable: schools will need resources to adapt to very real and serious challenges, but assessment and accountability must be part of their plans moving forward. Policymakers and education leaders need reliable evidence to show how well students are learning, even as schools manage health and safety concerns.
Accountability can and should adapt
Even though state assessments and accountability systems were put on “pause” as the pandemic hit the nation’s schools earlier this year, the panelists saw both potential and urgency around adapting those systems to meet our current moment. Governor Bush recounted the challenge and importance of maintaining testing and accountability following a wave of four hurricanes and two tropical storms in 2004 that affected half of Florida’s school districts: “If you stop measuring and you don’t have accountability, who are the losers? The losers are those that have been left behind historically.” Only through maintaining accountability was it possible for a surprising outcome to come to light: counties most impacted by the hurricanes demonstrated the greatest gains on the state’s end-of-year test.
King called for leadership to improve accountability policy for a new era: “We have huge challenges, which only means we have bigger opportunities to do the right thing.” He argued that leaders can learn from the past 20 years by weighing growth more heavily in accountability systems, making sure that assessment doesn’t crowd out quality instruction, and doing more to address resource disparities.
The challenge for policymakers will be to strike a balance between holding firm on assessment and accountability and finding ways to adapt those systems based on the realities facing schools as well as the lessons we’ve learned over the past 20 years of accountability.
Accountability needs to be more than testing and school ratings
Panelists framed accountability as more than testing and school ratings, seeing it as playing a valuable role in broader reform efforts. “I think that it’s right for people to be frustrated that 60 plus years after Brown v Board of Education, there are places that are more segregated today than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and to the extent they see the conversation about assessment and accountability as ignoring [those] issues, people are going to be frustrated by that,” explained King. “We have to have a both/and response and not just say accountability and assessment is the only thing that matters. It’s necessary for improvement. We have to tackle other issues.”
Governor Bush underscored the importance of connecting accountability systems to broader school improvement efforts: “If you’re just using accountability to say this school is doing well and that school is not, and then not having strategies around it, I think it’s easy to see why accountability would lose its steam as a policy tool.” Moffat Miller added that the transparency that accountability systems bring can help leaders identify where to target resources to better support students.
Accountability systems are necessarily only one part of states’ efforts to improve student outcomes. Policymakers must make clear the connections between assessments; accountability; and strategies to improve student outcomes, educator quality, and equitable resources across schools.
Better testing could help improve accountability systems
Testing is often the most criticized aspect of accountability systems, but the panelists offered ideas for improving the relevance of tests to students, families, and educators. King and Gov. Bush were optimistic about the role technology could play in making assessment results more meaningful to parents and educators with faster turnaround times than paper-and-pencil exams.
King cautioned, however, that any changes to testing ought to maintain comparability of data across schools: “Part of the work that we do as civil rights advocates is make the case that we need equity, and the only way we can do that is if we have information that is comparable between districts that serve a lot of low-income students of color and districts that serve affluent white students.”
Moffat Miller disagreed on the need for every student to take the same assessments: “I […]think the assessment world would benefit from [reconsidering] the idea that things have to be exactly the same. There’s a way to make things comparable and not have to be exactly the same.” Moffat Miller pointed to the example of the SAT and ACT, which while not perfectly comparable, can offer some level of comparison that is useful to stakeholders.
Choice can add value to accountability systems
Each of the panelists articulated some role for school choice as a mechanism for accountability, but they differed on how it should be incorporated. Governor Bush was very clear on his broad support for school choice: “It’s the ultimate accountability tool for a parent.”
But for King, accountability systems are critical to level the school choice playing field between affluent parents and low-income parents, immigrant parents, and communities of color: “We need to have transparent accountability and assessment systems if those choice models are going to make the argument that they can add something different, something positive to the world of public education. They need to be a part of that assessment and accountability system and they need to show that they can make real gains.”
Affluent families have always had the power to navigate and select the right schooling option for their child. We’re already seeing their power adapt to remote learning with the formation of “pandemic pods.” Policymakers should consider what needs to be done to better level the playing field for low-income families and families of students with special learning needs: how can they have more control over the learning options for their children?
We can and should make next year count
While the landscape for schools this fall may include more virtual instruction than many had hoped, each panelist emphasized the need to find a way to move assessment and accountability forward. For Moffat Miller and CCSSO members, that means focusing on the primary missions of accountability systems: “The fundamental reason why we give assessments and why we have accountability is transparency and making sure we’re delivering for kids.”
But before that can happen, King argued that more federal support is needed to help schools operate safely, from expanded COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, to support for device and broadband access. “Last spring, a lot of places didn’t take attendance. We have no idea what kids got last spring, so we need an assessment and accountability [system] that yes, is about measuring academic learning loss [but] also about measuring academic engagement – are kids actually getting learning time?”
Now that leaders have the benefit of more time to plan for the 2020-21 school year, they must build transparent systems that show how well students are doing in remote learning environments. More importantly, they need to connect that data to actions and interventions to ensure that the learning losses students experienced last spring are not compounded over another year.