Monday, September 29, 2014

Fix the Problems, but Don’t Retreat on Accountability

Talking with this group over the last few months about the future of school accountability has been a pleasure but also reassuring. The fact that education leaders like these are still committed to the basic, critical elements of school accountability shows that this important work will continue.

For almost two decades, school accountability has focused on creating clear content standards for what students should know and when they should know it, testing to measure their mastery of those standards, and applying consequences and rewards to those responsible for the success of students in meeting the standards.

As with any reform effort, those elements have been refined since they started gaining ground in the mid to late 1990s. For example, states must now test their students annually and with reliable, objective, and comparable assessments at least in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. And we now insist upon progress for all student groups.

School accountability has worked, too. It has contributed to rising, impressive NAEP scores and record graduation rates. Long-term trend results, which were absolutely flat in the decade just before accountability became the norm in the country, improved dramatically between 2000 and 2008. There was generally improvement in reading and math by a significant rate of one to two grade levels among 9- and 13-year-old African American and Hispanic students during this decade.

Yet, momentum has recently slowed. Student results have begun to stagnate, just as accountability policies have weakened. While we can't say for sure what's precisely the cause, it's not too early to worry when we see the long-term trend data for 2008 through 2012 beginning to show a clear pattern of flattening. The fact that we are seeing a flattening of student gains in core subjects at the same time that accountability requirements have been lessened is, at the very least, disturbing.

Don’t get me wrong: we need to fix the problems within accountability systems. Yet we must stay the course with rigorous, sensible, and fair accountability. This much we know for sure: we cannot retreat from the critical elements that have helped improve student achievement.

Sandy Kress is former senior advisor on education to President George W. Bush, and currently focuses on education matters at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

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