This fall is turning into a slow-motion disaster for students and families. Many districts planned to implement some form of hybrid learning to start the school year, only to have those plans scuttled in the aftermath of rising COVID-19 cases across the nation. On top of the logistical challenge of shifting to remote learning on a short timeline, families and educators are making these changes without a shared understanding of students’ academic needs since state assessments were cancelled this past spring. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be painfully obvious now: our education system is in crisis.
This moment calls for significant changes in how school systems meet the needs of students, both during the current crisis and once we return to something that resembles “normal.” Assessment and accountability policies are no exception. For too long, these systems have been asked to serve multiple purposes, from identifying schools for intervention, to providing data to inform instruction, to informing parental choice.
In a new brief, my coauthors and I argue that now is the time to clarify and refocus the priorities of school accountability policy. In Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability, we explore three different scenarios where policymakers successfully limit accountability systems to one primary function:
As a means for policymakers to intervene in schools
As a tool for schools to improve instruction
As a platform to inform parents as they engage with their school communities and/or make school choice decisions
For each of these single-priority approaches to accountability, we explain how it could work in practice and articulate what trade-offs policymakers would have to make to adopt that approach.
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
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 somestates 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?
I have a new piece out in Education Week that focuses on teacher-designed assessments. In it I argue that while teacher designed assessments can be more beneficial to student learning than commercially prepared assessments, teacher survey data suggests that most teachers don’t feel they have the appropriate skills to design high-quality assessments:
National teacher polling data suggest that I was not alone. A 2016 Gallup poll found that roughly 30 percent of teachers do not feel prepared to develop assessments. Less than 50 percent of teachers in low-income schools reported feeling “very prepared” to interpret assessment results, and less than 50 percent of teachers said they’d received training on how to talk with parents, fellow teachers, and students about assessment results. More alarming is that no state requires teachers to be certified in the basics of assessment development, so it’s likely that many teachers have never had any formal assessment training.
I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Michigan to make significant investments in assessment literacy training for educators. More states should follow the lead of these exemplars and commit to equipping all educators with the tools to develop high-quality, rigorous assessments.
I have a new piece out in GOVERNING Magazine discussing innovation in state assessments, and why local and state officials should invest in improving their assessment systems instead of cutting back. I highlight work underway in New Hampshire and Louisiana, which have both received waivers from the federal government to do something different with their tests. Just as the piece came out, Georgia and North Carolina got approval from the Department of Education for their own innovative assessment plans. But there’s a lot states can do even without special federal approval.
An excerpt of my op-ed:
“Test” has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.
But if standardized state tests aren’t useful in the classroom and aren’t informing instruction, that’s a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.