Accountability policies assert that taxpayers shouldn’t just fund programs; they should get great results for their tax dollars.
In education policy today, accountability means that schools, not just the students, should be held accountable for the progress, or lack of progress, in every student's achievement.
How did Accountability in Education Policy Become Important?
Accountability in education emerged during the early 1990s at the state level. Governors figured out that excellent schools were necessary to attract new business, so they started expecting schools to deliver great results.
Few have problems with the idea of accountability. They do have problems when accountability systems are so poorly designed they obstruct progress.
An education accountability system requires three things, 1) a clearly defined set of standards, 2) valid and reliable tests that measure how well the standards are met, and 3) an effective plan to improve schools that fall short. Throughout the 90s states strived to get these three things right. The federal government was not involved.
But in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act changed everything. Instead of no federal benchmark for student achievement, the new law set an almost utopian national goal--that every student be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. To hold schools accountable to that goal, every school was required to make "Adequate Yearly Progress” or face serious punitive consequences.
Standardized Test Scores Became the Measure of Accountability
How was adequate yearly progress (AYP) measured? The law required states to test third through eighth graders in reading and math every year. States were responsible for developing their own standards, tests and annual expectations of progress. But every state had the same end goal--all students must score at a proficient level by 2014.
The law set the expectation that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, make annual progress. To make their progress more transparent, the law required the disaggregation of test scores, so a lack of progress in a group couldn’t be disguised by school wide averages.
If schools failed to meet AYP they faced a series of increasingly punitive measures over a period of six years. At first, parents could remove their children from a failing school and enroll them in a better school. But years of failing would lead to firing some or all of the school staff, or even closing down the school.
The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing
With harsh sanctions for failing to meet standards, and no rewards for meeting or exceeding them, NCLB's accountability system led to unintended negative consequences such as lowering standards, narrowing curriculum, teaching to the test, and gaming the system.
Because states lost federal funds if their schools failed to meet standards, NCLB actually incentivized states to lower standards. The law even created disincentives to high standards, since there was only a downside to doing so. During this NCLB era, almost half the states actually lowered their standards.
By testing just reading and math, NCLB unintentionally incentivized schools to narrow the curriculum to make more time to teach the accountable subjects. To lawmakers, more class time for reading and math seemed smart, but that also meant less time for science, social studies, and P.E. This obstructed federal goals to expand science education and reduce childhood obesity.
Since standardized tests scores determined success or failure, teaching test taking skills became a success strategy. Hours of instruction time shifted from subject matter to test preparation, further narrowing the curriculum.
Standardized tests aren’t designed to measure teaching effectiveness, so many educators said it was unfair to tie their reputation and job security to these test scores. Many didn’t "buy in" and this led to "gaming the system." For example, students likely to score low might be encouraged to stay home on testing day. States might lower the “cut score” to raise the pass rate. Worse yet, instances of cheating were exposed.
What Good Came From NCLB's Accountability System?
Most agree that good will come from the enormous amount of data produced with ten years of testing. Researchers say that the requirement to disaggregate test scores has provided essential information to understand and overcome achievement gaps. Most importantly, the law’s accountability system gets credit for focusing the attention of all K-12 stakeholders squarely on student achievement.
Has accountability improved student achievement? This question is hotly debated.
The case against current accountability polices is well-stated by Diane Ravitch in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Chapter 8.
The case for the positive effects of accountability is well made in this Harvard Report by Kress, Zechmann, and Schmitten (pdf).
For a discussion of what a smart accountability system might look like, read The Flat World of Education, Chapter 9, by Linda Hammond-Darling.