Educational Accountability–Doing it Right

When it comes to accountability for our children’s education the battle lines are drawn.  On one side are those who believe that annual point in time testing answers all the questions about how much students are learning, and accordingly, how well their schools are performing.  This movement was at its height with the passage of the almost universally reviled No Child Left Behind Act.  Though its harshest measures have been waived by the US Dept. of Education in a majority of states, those waivers continue to insist on using annual point in time testing to measure accountability, though thankfully, other measures, such as graduation rates, are now added to the mix.

On the other side are those who believe that standardized testing is a sham and should never be used to measure either student performance or consequently school performance.  Indeed, some are now calling for a moratorium on such testing.

As usual, both sides have their faults.  Those who favor standardized testing insist that if we do not have a standard way to measure student performance, then we will never really know how to compare students, schools and school districts in terms of how well their doing.  They have a point.  Without standardized testing, for example, we would not have the evidence that our nation’s largest private school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), performs no better than its public school counterpart (MPS), and arguably worse, since those same standardized tests finally required collection of disability data, demonstrating that MPCP schools discriminate against students with disabilities by barely serving any of them, leaving a disproportionate number of those harder to serve students in MPS. The disability discrimination complaint I filed with the ACLU against the MPCP on this issue is still pending with the US Dept. of Justice.

Those that oppose standardized testing rightly point out that many of the tests are flawed, some racially biased or not suited to English Language Learners (ELLs) or students with disabilities.  They also correctly point out that many aspects of a student’s education cannot be measured by a single test, the most obvious example being behavior.  In addition, they have a good point in saying that blaming an individual teacher for how their students perform on a single test makes no sense when one examines all the other factors that likely affect the students’ performance, such as health, poverty and parental engagement.

So, how do we solve this dilemma?

In the Jamie S. class action settlement, I believe we found the answer.  In that settlement, we required the following:

  • A court appointed Independent Expert approved a high quality reading and math curriculum.  After all, it is simply unfair to measure students’ performance and blame teachers if the students perform poorly, if the tools the teachers are given by the school district are not rigorous and appropriate.
  • Over an 8 year period, starting with elementary schools, and moving up to middle schools, then high schools, all children would be REGULARLY assessed for performance in reading, math and behavior.  The Independent Expert would help build and ultimately approve data systems to monitor these assessments.
  • Any MPS student falling falling behind in reading, math, and/or behavior would receive Early Intervening Services (EIS) to address the student’s problems. While this could include a special education evaluation, that would only happen if EIS failed to resolve the student’s problem and/or there was evidence of a disability.

After 4 years of implementation, this settlement was showing signs of turning MPS around.  Sadly, MPS appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and had the settlement thrown out when the court decertified the class.  After that unfortunate decision, both MPS and the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI) abandoned the settlement.  Ironically, no part of MPS’ legal challenge ever questioned the educational validity of this accountability system.  Thus, education advocates who really care about improving students’ education should push for adoption of an accountability plan on the Jamie S. settlement model without waiting for a class action to force school districts and states to do so.


For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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2 thoughts on “Educational Accountability–Doing it Right

  1. I really dislike the negative impacts of high-stakes testing, even well-designed tests like the ones we have here in Massachusetts. Take a look at the various works of James Popham, especially his The Truth about Testing. That said, well designed tests can really help, especially in disadvantaged school districts. What I would suggest is having well designed, graded assessments that are preserved (probably electronically) which can be used in addition to data from standardized tests to assess student learning.

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