Draft Principles for Authentic Accountability

K-12 Testing

FairTest is collaborating with education, civil rights, parent and community organizations, and researchers, to develop a set of principles that can guide accountability programs. The portions of the draft principles included below are intended to spur further discussion; they are not a final product nor have they been endorsed by any other organizations. They do extend beyond testing and assessment to address fundamental issues of public schooling. This article is excerpted from Chapter 6 of Failing Our Children (see story, p. 1).


A. Accountable to What Ends?


The key purposes of accountability are to inform the public – to give an accounting – of the status of the school or system; to provide information that can be used to improve teaching and learning; to ensure equity within the system; to strengthen democratic participation in governing schools; and to ensure that participants in the system carry out their responsibilities well.


Clearly there is much about schools, particularly those serving low-income and minority-group children, that must be improved. Therefore, the chief goals of accountability should be improvement and equity. Because quality public schools are widely understood as foundational to democracy, accountability procedures should strengthen, not undermine, participatory democracy. All the principles should be used to help guide participants in the system to doing their work responsibly and well.


We propose four broad principles for the purposes of authentic accountability:


1. Improvement. Schools and districts must be accountable for using a range of measures of school health to make decisions and implement procedures over time that will improve the quality of schools and learning. Good teaching is fundamental. Since a primary purpose of accountability is to make schools better, professional development – particularly time for teachers to collaborate – must be a regular part of teachers’ paid work and must be aimed toward improving practice.


2. Equity. Education systems can and should contribute to closing the race and class achievement gaps and to overcoming the consequences of poverty and racism. Gaps must be closed on the significant academic, personal and social outcomes that society wants for its children – not only on standardized tests – and on the social and school “inputs” that powerfully shape school achievement. Schools may need to create links with social service and health agencies to provide, for example, vision or dental care. In addition, schools should gather and publicize information about unmet social needs that hinder student achievement. Children who need more should be provided with more: equity does not mean the same for all, it means that all children receive what they need to fully develop.


3. Democracy. Control over and responsibility for schools must be grounded in sound principles of participatory democracy. Accountability systems therefore must promote the informed involvement of key actors in the education system: parents, students, educators, and members of the local community first of all. To further strengthen democracy as well as promote equity and overall achievement, government and education systems should be accountable for promoting, expanding and strengthening schooling that is integrated by race and class.


4. Informing the public. The public deserves accurate information about the functioning, successes and problems of public education, focusing on the various aspects of schooling that are of major concern. For example, in addition to information on achievement (which must include more than test score data), the public needs to know if schools lack basics like well-equipped and staffed libraries, art supplies and science labs, and clean bathrooms.


B. Accountable for What?


Accountability must be based on a shared vision and goals for education and schools, on agreement about what schools should be and do. The larger community must participate in setting the basic goals and purposes of the educational system and evaluating how well they have been met. Because a shared vision may not be present, processes must be established to enable communities to come to agreement or to allow differences to co-exist. To meet this purpose, we propose the following five principles:


1. Priorities. The shared vision should establish priorities for academic and other formal learning, students’ physical and emotional well-being, schools’ social environment, and how well schools prepare students to participate in our democracy, be lifelong learners, and make a good living. Assessment information used in accountability must focus on those areas deemed most important, not only those areas that are easiest to measure with inexpensive tools, such as standardized tests, though such tools have a place in the accountability process.


2. Resources. Government must be held accountable for providing education systems, including schools and pre-schools, with adequate resources to meet agreed-upon priorities. This includes the money to hire good teachers and ensure continuing professional development, provide small classes, books, technology and supplies, in a comfortable, clean and hospitable environment, in order to ensure that all children receive an adequate and equitable opportunity to learn. Resources for other policies and programs known to contribute to important outcomes, such as pre-school or health care, must also be provided. Schools and districts should be accountable for using their resources fairly and effectively.


3. Student learning. Education systems should be accountable for ensuring all students learn those essential things society agrees all should learn (i.e., academic standards) and for enabling all students to pursue areas of individual interest and talent. Assessments of academic, vocational or other formal learning must promote, measure and provide useful feedback on conceptual understanding and the ability to use knowledge and create rather than primarily procedural, factual or surface learning. They must include all important content areas of learning and be congruent with current knowledge about how students learn. Graduation rates and post-secondary success should be included in accountability reports, broken out by key demographic groups.


4. Student well-being. Students are happier and achieve more in environments that are hospitable and welcoming and where students feel empowered, challenged, motivated and supported. To hold schools accountable for establishing supportive and caring learning environments for all children and for ensuring students’ physical and emotional well-being, there must be evidence that illuminates the most important aspects.


5. Inclusion. The progress and well being of all students must be accounted for. All accountability data should be broken out by major demographic categories. Inclusion also implies respect for the diverse experiences and cultural backgrounds of students and communities.


C. Accountable to Whom?


Accountability must be mutual and reciprocal. An accountability system must define appropriate expectations for participants in the system (e.g., schools, districts, the state and federal governments, as well as students and teachers).


1. Higher levels of government are responsible for providing sufficient resources to ensure adequate and equitable opportunity to learn; safeguarding civil and human rights; monitoring local systems; analyzing research and practice to determine what works best in what circumstances; disseminating knowledge; providing additional support as needed; and intervening in localities when necessary.


States can define core areas for learning, though specific standards as well as curriculum and instruction can be left to districts and schools. State agencies should intervene when localities are unable to provide a high-quality education even when they have reasonable resources. Governments are accountable for conducting business with transparency and substantial educator, parent and community input.


2. Local schools and districts and their communities must be the primary authorities in the accountability process. Schools are first of all accountable to their students, their parents and the local community. Local accountability involves active participation and shared power among key actors. Schools and districts also are responsible to the general public and the state.


3. The accountability structure delineates roles and responsibilities of the state, districts, and schools, gathers evidence as to how well they have been carried out, and includes means to ensure change and improvement where necessary.


D. Accountable by what means?


The means used to implement accountability can support or undermine underlying goals and overall school quality. The trend in education policy, exemplified especially by NCLB, has been to combine narrow measures with high stakes, thereby damaging schools’ capacity to meet larger goals and often undermining the quality of education.
To ensure that accountability methods support comprehensive accountability goals:


1. Use multiple forms of evidence. Accountability requires the use of multiple forms of qualitative and quantitative evidence from both academic and non-academic areas to assess students, schools and districts and determine how to make improvements. All students must be assessed and evaluated with a range of appropriate tools and methods. No important academic decision about a student, a teacher, an administrator, a school or a district should be made solely on one type of evidence, such as standardized test scores. Multiple forms of evidence may include teacher evaluations of student achievement, portfolios as evidence of student work, final projects presented to a panel of community members, etc. Scores from several standardized tests do not constitute multiple forms of evidence.


2. Assess a set of key factors that are known to predict school and system success. These “predictive” or “formative” indicators include in-school factors such as strong classroom assessment and professional development for teachers, and out of school factors such as health care, housing, nutrition, and availability of high-quality pre-school; whether educators are using information in a reasonable way to improve teaching, learning and school quality; and whether the state and federal governments are providing positive support in these areas. Practices proven to inhibit high achievement or harm school quality, such as tracking, retention and lower expectations for some groups of students, should be identified and analyzed.


3. Use skillful feedback to improve student outcomes. Research has demonstrated that skilled use of feedback to students (“formative assessment”) is among the most powerful tools teachers have to help students learn. For assessment to be most helpful and guide further instruction, it must be comprehensive and regular enough to provide fine-grained information about each student, and the student must understand and apply the information. Most assessment therefore must be classroom-based and used by well-prepared teachers. Schools and districts must ensure that all teachers become skilled at this kind of assessment. Standardized exams should supplement, not supplant or overpower, classroom assessment.


4. Use interventions sparingly and carefully. Interventions from higher levels of government must focus on providing useful assistance and include harsher measures only as a last resort. Intervention should focus on factors that can produce significant improvement, including effective professional development, active parent involvement, high-quality classroom assessment, and smaller class sizes.


If a school or district has taken steps that plausibly will lead to desired improvement, it must be allowed time for those changes to take effect. During that time, improvement efforts must be monitored using a range of evidence to determine if implementation of reasonable changes is proceeding well and schools are able to use information to effectively adjust their improvement efforts. If a school or district is unable to improve despite assistance, then a higher level of government should intervene.


The little research that exists suggests that there is no significant evidence that sanctions such as removing the principal and key staff, privatizing school or system management, making the school a charter school, or having the state run the school or district are effective or create improvement. Such sanctions therefore should be taken as a last resort, with sufficient support and resources to increase the likelihood of success, and with careful monitoring of progress. Such strong interventions should be consistent with these principles.