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Developing Honest, Transparent and Effective Accountability Systems

• Patricia Levesque



This is the fourth installment in a series by ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque, designed to give states guidance on how they can use the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance student achievement.

Read previous posts: 

  1. School Accountability Under ESSA
  2. Focus School Accountability on Results
  3. Balancing Proficiency and Growth in School Accountability

The purpose of measuring student achievement is to advance it. This requires a straightforward and simple calculation of how many students are achieving proficiency in core subjects and how many are not.

Measuring achievement in this manner answers the most important question: How many students in a school are being prepared for graduation and life thereafter?

Unfortunately, there is an alternative approach to measurement that obfuscates such critical information.

It uses an index system that gives schools partial credit for non-proficient students and additional credit for advanced students.

Why is this a problem? Consider, for example, a system that awards zero points for each student scoring at a below basic level, a half point for each student scoring at a basic level, one point at a proficient level, 1.5 points at a proficient-plus level and 2 points at an advanced level.

Now take a school with 100 students, with 20 students in each category. It could earn a top achievement score of 100 even though 40 percent of the students are below proficient.

Should a school in which 40 percent of students are not prepared for college or a career be recognized as a stellar performer?

And what about the school down the street that has 95 students performing at the proficient level and five at the basic level? It has a lower score even though a much larger percent of its students are working at grade level.

This is the inherent problem with indexed systems. Two schools achieving wildly varying results can earn the same scores. A school with a large population of advanced students can, in effect, use them to hide the dismal scores of its low performers in accountability calculations.

Schools also can continue getting credit for students who achieve at the basic level year after year, never rising to proficiency.

A straight-up system that simply uses proficiency as the measure requires schools to focus on bringing all students up to that level.

A rebuttal might be this: Well, on the other end of the spectrum, shouldn’t schools get credit for advancing students to a higher level than proficiency?

And the answer, of course, is yes.

In an earlier installment in this series we talked about the advantage of using a balanced accountability formula – one that gives schools credit for students that have achieved proficiency, as well as credit for the growth students are making from one year to the next.

Schools would earn credit for elevating high performers in the growth side of such an accountability formula. Whereas the proficiency side of the formula would focus on just that.

This well-rounded approach ensures there is a focus on elevating all students, no matter what level they are performing at, with the minimum expectation being proficiency.

There is another issue to consider when measuring achievement in the upper grades. And this has to do with correctly conveying information to parents about student success in advanced classes, be it in college-level or industry-certified coursework.

That sounds like simple information to convey, but how it is done can be deceptive.

For example, consider a school with 1,000 students. One-hundred of them are enrolled in advanced courses, with 70 of those 100 students successfully completing the classes.

Should the school then report it has a 70 percent success rate in advanced classes when, in fact, only 7 percent of students succeeded in these classes?

We believe the higher number is misleading. All students should be included as the denominator in this calculation, which gives parents more accurate information while incentivizing schools to move more students into advanced coursework and ensure they succeed.

Accountability systems must be honest and transparent to be effective. The purpose is not to inflate the performance of schools by presenting data in the most favorable light possible, but to give parents usable information with which to make decisions.

Student achievement measures must account for all students, and success must be measured by how many of them leave high school prepared for life.

For more resources and information concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at