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High School Accountability & Advanced Coursework

• Patricia Levesque

This is the sixth 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
  4. Developing Honest, Transparent and Effective Accountability Systems
  5. Should Attendance, Discipline & School Safety Influence School Report Cards?

male teacher in high school classroom


Most of us share the goal of exposing students to more rigorous coursework so they will be better prepared for college or a career after high school graduation.

And so, it would seem to make sense for states to give schools credit for student participation rates in higher level classes, such as AP, IB or courses leading to industry certification.

But good intentions in this case can lead to unintended and negative consequences.

Dictating how many students should be in these classes infringes on school autonomy, narrows course choices and sets up some students for failure by placing them in classes they are not equipped to handle.

Participation only tells you how effective schools are at enrolling students in the desired courses, not whether the students are benefiting from them. The simple act of enrollment does not prepare a student for college or a career.

At worst, students will lack the motivation to succeed in courses that are over their heads; or schools will decrease rigor to accommodate them, which defeats the purpose of the classes and penalizes those students who are prepared.

State accountability systems instead should focus on results. Reporting the percent of the student population that is successfully completing college-level or vocational classes.

Strong student success numbers indicate that the entire education eco-system is performing well. Students are becoming capable readers in the early grades. They are learning the fundamentals of math to prepare them for higher-order math in the later grades.

Preparation for advanced coursework in high school begins in K-3 classrooms.

If you create an accountability system focused on outcomes, schools will focus on improving them. Adding participation calculations in the formula dilutes that focus by allowing schools to make amends for low performance with high participation numbers.

Should a school that has half its students enrolled in advanced courses be considered successful if only 5 percent of them are passing the courses?

Compare that to a school with a quarter of its students enrolled in such courses, but a 90-percent passing rate.

Participation is an input. Inputs are best left to the control of local districts and school principals. Tell them what is expected, and give them the freedom to produce the results.

In this case, the expected result is students who are ready for college or ready to pursue a career after graduation. Keeping school leaders focused solely on that outcome is how you maximize the number of those students.

It also is important to understand that accountability is about more than measuring results. It is about conveying that information to parents in a simple, usable manner so they can make decisions based on them.

Are the students in my child’s school reading at grade level or better? Are they making progress? Are students succeeding in the courses that will prepare them for life after graduation?

This information should be presented in a well-designed school report card — upfront and unobstructed by competing charts and graphs that dilute the focus on student performance data. Input measures such as participation can be included later in the report card to give parents an overall picture of the school.

Through their accountability system, state leaders should set high standards. And they should expect results. They should not micromanage local educators. Rather, educators should have the freedom and flexibility to maximize student achievement in their unique environments.

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