Now Is Not the Time to Roll Back Accountability Systems

This spring presented a massive challenge to educators, students, and families. A global pandemic caught our schools by surprise and forced them to quickly adapt to distance learning — a shift that exacerbated the inequities in our school system

Unfortunately, we’re already seeing signs that some states seem to be giving up on accountability for student outcomes during the 2020-2021 school year. That would be a mistake. Today’s accountability systems are by no means perfect, and they may well need to adapt to the moment, but now is not the time to abandon the only mechanism that provides information on how every school is serving every student.

For the past two decades, we’ve relied on standards-based accountability as a safeguard for equity. Now that schools face new challenges and greater inequities, will policymakers be able to adapt accountability for a new set of circumstances or will they relinquish this key lever for equity? 

The bipartisan coalition that originally supported standards-based accountability is fractured. Concerns over the use of testing data as part of educator evaluations weakened the support for accountability among liberals, while pushback against the Common Core had a similar effect on conservatives. With education politics growing more hyper-polarized during the Trump presidency — including the debate on what schooling should look like during the 2020-21 school year — there is even less room for a natural reformation of the original bipartisan coalition for accountability. 

While the path forward for standards-based accountability is not plainly clear at this point, it’s critical that policymakers ask themselves some hard questions: Do they still agree with the underlying theory of standards-based accountability? Do its foundational goals of equity and transparency hold up decades later? What do key stakeholders need from these systems now? Given what we’ve learned from decades of successes and failures, how should these systems continue to evolve and what coalitions can support those changes?

To help education leaders answer these questions, my colleagues and I launched a four-part series of briefs that examine the past, present, and future of modern school accountability systems:

  1. The Historical Roots and Theory of Change of Modern School Accountability
  2. The Impact of Standards-Based Accountability
  3. Assessment and Accountability in the Wake of COVID-19
  4. Coming later this summer, the final brief will synthesize key lessons to inform the next phase of accountability

For teachers and school leaders busy dealing with the logistics of reopening schools, any discussions of accountability may seem premature and out of step. However, our goal is to take an honest look at where we are, how we got here, what we’ve learned along the way, and how we might move forward in evolving standards-based accountability as a powerful tool for achievement and equity. 

With the dual forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national call to action on racial inequity, the question of how we should measure the impact of our education systems is more urgent than ever. It’s why we’re also convening a webinar on July 20th with national educational leaders to discuss how we can make next year count — you can preregister here.

WEBINAR: Making Next Year Count - Equity in School Accountability

Adapting accountability systems to the uncertain learning landscape educators and students will face this fall is a significant, but not impossible, task for policymakers. The challenges that face schools and accountability systems this fall are well-known and solvable. We need to make sure that leaders act now to build support for next-generation accountability systems that maintain a focus on delivering higher and more equitable outcomes for all students.